Fonts for learning: Why disfluency can help memory and learning

Eight long years ago I wrote about research which suggested that if you want people to remember and learn, use a font which makes it harder to read (read the original article here). Now a team of psychologists, economists and designers have collaborated to create a typeface which practically applies this insight.

Rallying against the intuitive stance that the role of a designer is always to promote simplicity, the original research published in Cognition (Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer & Vaughan, 2010) opened up the idea of the designer having a more paternal role in helping their audience understand content at a cognitive level. It seems that hard-to-read fonts reach areas of our brain which can otherwise easily sweep over text without actually taking it in.

Our brains deal with so many complex functions such as muscle tension, digestion, cell growth, pupil dilation (to name just a few), we’d be driven insane if we needed to pay conscious attention them all. Animals have evolved intricate neural systems that kindly deal with a multitude of processes below the threshold of consciousness, and these systems are always on the lookout for taking on more. Driving is an excellent example to demonstrate this. We know we need to be in control when driving, shuddering at the thought of the consequences of taking our eye off-the-road, but are you consciously driving? In reality, your lateral geniculate nucleus passes visual information to the primary visual cortex, which is continuously communicating to your cerebellum which itself is busy moving your muscles so you stay in the right lane. While all this is happening outside awareness, your conscious self is free to plan dinner, talk on the handsfree or sing along to Ariana Grande. Drivers who regularly travel the same route often report not being able to remember miles and miles of the journey when asked afterwards, so who’s really driving?

When everything is simple, automatic and routine, our sophisticated unconscious processes can take over. Sweeping your eyes left to right over a page or screen where there’s nothing to jolt our pre-frontal cortex to attention means we can all too easily read something without processing it. By introducing a level of ‘disfluency’, we trigger our brain to work harder and this results in better learning and understanding. In a 2013 study, people were presented with the simple question you saw at the top of the screen: “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?” Many participants said two. The interesting finding was that when the question was printed in a harder-to-read font, they were 35% more likely to spot that it was a trick and state that it was Noah, and not Moses, who built the ark. But from a designer’s perspective, the depressing part of the research was that the font which triggered the best learning was Comic Sans Italic set in light grey 😢

To the rescue of everyone who would rather delete their Netflix account than use Comic Sans in any serious context, a multidisciplinary team of designers and behavioural scientists from RMIT University set their conscious minds to creating the perfect typeface for enhanced memory retention. The result is the superbly named Sans Forgetica, which creates an effect of ‘desirable difficulty’ where purposeful obstructions to learning processes cause the brain to engage in deeper cognitive processing.

“Sans Forgetica features two key design elements that question the Gestalt understanding of type. One is the unconventional back-slanting of the typeface… and the other is the gaps we’ve been able to produce within the letterform itself.”
 — Stephen Banham, RMIT lecturer and typographer

The evolution of the Sans Forgetica typeface came from repeated research into which forms helped people remember lists of words, with tests carried out on varying levels of disfluency. The team at RMIT state that the final set of letterforms which became Sans Forgetica achieved the best results in memory tests as it breaks just enough design principles, without becoming too illegible. Stephen Banham, the typographer involved in the project, goes on to say “this project illustrates the direct application of psychological theory into everyday practice.” You could argue how ‘everyday’ the use of Sans Forgetica will be in the design world, but the principle of introducing disfluency and desirable difficulty in contexts where the intention is to help readers learn and understand is important, especially in online environments where often the mantra of user-experience design is to keep it simple stupid.

The RMIT team have offered the use of Sans Forgetica free for non-commercial use and also created a Chrome browser extension to allow you to convert on-screen text to Sans Forgetica.