Sometimes a study comes along that just runs counter to your intuition and in doing so has an impact on your design. Last month Connor Diamond-Yauman and his colleagues published just such a paper in Cognition (2010).
The conclusion of the paper is that if you want people to remember and learn what they’re reading you’d be better off trying to make it hard to read, by setting the type in a hard-to-read font for example.
My communications teacher at school would be turning in his grave if he read this (and if he was dead) as he drilled into me over and over to make things as clear and simple as possible (he never forgave me for sticking David Carson layouts all over my sketch books). It now seems he was wrong as the results from this study shows that people’s retention is significantly better when they have to work a little more to interpret the information.
The theory behind the results is that when people find something easy to read they often mistake this as a sign that they’ve learnt it. When the information is harder to read people need to work more to process it and this leads to better learning. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck between making people work harder and making it completely illegible (the hard to read fonts in the study were MS Comic Sans Italic and MT Bodini in 60% grey).
Besides the obvious relevance to pedagogy it would be interesting if further research could see if the results could be extended to advertising and design materials. Could making the core message, and call-to-actions harder to read actually increase their potency? However, let me be very clear, the last thing I’m proposing is for more use of Comic Sans!