Adaptive typography

View source | View history | Atom feed for this file


Typographers focus almost exclusively on designing texts that are meant to be read linearly (and typography guidelines follow this as well, telling writers to limit line length, use a certain font size, etc.). But if you look at the actual stuff happening in the reader’s mind as they interact with a book or webpage, linear reading is only one of many possible ways of interacting with a text. In particular, searching for things, flipping around, cross-referencing, and other “movement” tasks are quite common. For such movement tasks, the standard typographic advice seems like a poor choice. So the idea of adaptive typography is to alter the typography of a page as the reader is reading to fit the current task. (This is to be distinguished from “responsive typography”: adaptive typography is adapting to the reader’s mental state, while responsive typography is responding to the reader’s device.) I don’t have a great idea for how to implement adaptive typography in practice, but one naïve idea is to have a button at the corner of the page that can toggle between “absorbing/linear mode” and “movement mode” (and possibly other modes).


(this page used to be called “List of cognitive processes that happen as one interacts with a text”.)

(Motivation: when people read things, they’re not just linearly processing the words and then storing each word in their head. They might be jumping around in the text to find the “interesting” parts or might be searching for something specific. This makes typography tricky: you can’t just say “this is a book. so we use the typography of a book”; as the reader’s mental activity changes, the “best” typography also changes. And that’s just for a single reader! If we consider all the possible readers who might get value from a text, that’s a lot of different purposes and mental activities going on. So. The goal here is to list out a bunch of mental activities and then see how design/typography decisions can improve the experience of each activity.)

“responsive typography” is a pre-existing term, but for some reason it’s only used to point to the concept of a page layout changing to match the size of the screen, essentially just the idea of “make sure you can read the page on both a laptop and a smartphone”. this is like.. such a limited conception of what the term could mean! i’m just going to call my own thing “adaptive typography” for now so there is no confusion: i want typography that changes as the reader’s mental state/goals/intentions change. i am actually against responsive typography since i don’t really want people to be reading my works on a smartphone. so you could say i am interested here in adaptive anti-responsive typography :D

List of cognitive processes that happen as one interacts with a text

Things you do when “reading” something. Or: distinct cognitive processes that happen as you interact with a text.

For each thing below, I want to figure out how it maps onto design decisions. How can a better designed page cater to each activity/process? Some of it will be best-addressed at the “explanation level” or “writing style level” rather than the typography/design level, but I’m still interested in seeing if there are easy design tweaks that can be made to improve reading experience.

i think the two big “modes” are “absorbing” (linear reading, engaging with the local content) and “moving” (includes e.g. scanning and searching; interacting with the global structure).

possibly another framing: instead of “adaptive typography”, it can be “modal reader”, like how vim is a “modal text editor”. the reader goes between different modes as they interact with the text, just as a programmer goes between e.g. edit, visual, normal modes as they write code.

reading goes through several stages: