Amongst many other things, Lazy Bee Scripts publishes plays intended for performance by young children. Young in this case can be taken as meaning relatively new to reading and writing. As a result, I am perpetually niggled by the issue of readability.
Actually, this is a specific case of a general issue: what constitutes a readable font? Whenever I dip into the academic literature on this subject I get two contradictory answers. The first answer is that seriffed fonts (those with tiny lines decorating the tips of the strokes of a letter), Times Roman, for example, are more readable because the serifs help to define and distinguish the letters. The second answer is “the plainer the better”, so sans serif fonts are easier to read because they are less fussy. To date, Lazy Bee Scripts has gone with the former verdict, however I am unhappy about this for scripts aimed at the early years of the education system.
The reason for my discomfort stems from the start of the alphabet. Look at the lower-case letter A in Times New Roman, then compare it to the way the letter is taught for handwriting. The printing font – in this case Times New Roman – has a curl going back over the top of the letter. (David Lovesy, who, when he is not writing or performing comedy sketches, works in the art and design field, tells me that this ornament is called a terminal. He also tells me that this information is useless, unless it happens to come up in a pub quiz.) This is not taught as part of the (early years) writing process, not least because it is unnecessary for distinguishing the letter.
Now, you may think that this feature of the lower case A is part of a seriffed font. Not so. Take a look at the common sans serif fonts – Arial for example – and you’ll find that the vast majority have the terminal. (Irritatingly, many fonts, including Times New Roman, lose the terminal for their Italic versions.)
This came to a head for me whilst I was working on I’ll See You In My Dreams. Michal Y Noah’s book for young children has been adapted into a play (to which I contributed the songs). So I embarked (not for the first time) on a hunt for a better font for early readers. You might think that there are a lot of fonts available with the schoolbook a – and so there are, but most of them have other problems. There are two issues: all letters need to be distinct (low confusability), and the font needs to look professional. The vast majority fail at the first hurdle:- (For adult readers, the similarity between those two glyphs doesn’t matter, because we will interpret them according to context. For young children, this is an unnecessary complication.) The obvious contender that passes the confusability test is Comic Sans, but it doesn’t look professional. (In defence of Comic Sans, it was never intended to look professional; it was created by Vincent Connare to look like the font used in the handwritten speech bubbles in comic books. It fulfils its purpose, but it wouldn’t look great in a newspaper, a business report or a play script.)
In the end, I settled on two fonts: Primer Print (from Typodermic Fonts), which works for body text, but (in my view) not so well as a title font, and Fibel Vienna (by Peter Wiegel), which is better for headlines, but (I think) has the wrong aspect ratio for body text. I have provided an example here (pdf), showing what the same text looks like in Times New Roman and in Primer Print. I’ve implemented this approach for I’ll See You In My Dreams, and if the general view is favourable, we’ll apply it to other scripts for children.
If you have experience of, or strong opinions about this issue, feel free to leave a comment below.