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Hard-to-read fonts can help boost your memory

  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Last week, Melbourne’s RMIT University unveiled Sans Foretica, a new custom-designed typeface that, according to its creators, helps readers retain what they read.

The clunky, hard-to-read sans serif would probably be considered a “bad font” by typographers, who are trained to labor over the minutia of letterforms with the aim of arriving at the most legible and elegant typefaces. But Sans Forgetica’s designers broke the rules of typeface design for good reason. “Sans Forgetica works by a learning principle called ‘desirable difficulty,’ explains behavioral economist Jo Peryman. “[It’s] when an obstruction is added to the learning process in order to promote deeper cognitive processing, which results in better memory retention.” The designers tested the font on 400 students: 57% successfully memorized text written in the Sans Forgetica font, compared to 50% who read it in Arial.

Coined by Stanford University professor Robert A. Bjork, other examples of “desirable difficulty” exercises include requiring students to solve puzzles to get a piece of information or presenting lessons out of order. The point is to get students actively involved in the process of learning.

Sans Forgetica has two unique features designed to trip readers: First, the gaps within the letterforms compel them to mentally fill in the blank spaces and, in the process, slow down their reading pace. Second, the font’s unusual backslant—a typographic convention typically used to denote rivers in maps—is intended to make sentences more difficult to read.

RMIT University
Work for it.

“For me, Sans Forgetica is more than the look of the typeface. It’s quite a rare fusion of research and practice” says typographer Stephen Banham, who worked with his colleagues at the Behavioural Business Lab and the marketing agency Naked Communications.

RMIT claims that Sans Forgetica is the world’s first font designed to boost memory, but the research on fonts and memory isn’t new. The concept builds on a 2010 Princeton University study that suggests using hard to read or “disfluent fonts” helps us remember things.

“I can say that it is based on sound principles,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of the seminal researchFortune favors the bold (and the Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. “One thing I noticed when looking at examples of this font is that it isn’t just hard to read, but it takes into account other principles of desirable difficulties.” He points to the “generation effect,” which involves requiring readers to f_ll in bl_nks in a way that can make items more me_orable. “The font seems to adopt this principle,” he says, referring to the gaps within each letterform.

While Oppenheimer wasn’t privy to the details of the testing, he’s optimistic about Sans Forgetica’s efficacy. ”When I published my findings a few years ago, many people asked me which font they should use to maximize learning [but] I didn’t have an answer,” he says. “The advance here rectifies that.”

Sans Forgetica can be downloaded for free as an OpenType file (for PCs or Macs) and as a Chrome extension on RMIT’s website.

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