Not My Type

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend,” said a great wise guy. “Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Stop. Hold your fire. Yes, I know; but Julius Henry Marx didn’t say it. says the origin of that joke is “uncertain.”

So, close, but no cigar. And no, he didn’t say that one either. Ralph Keyes (The Quote Verifier) traced that catchphrase to “Depression-era fairs and carnivals, addressed to those who didn’t win cigars for, say, trying to ring the bell with a sledgehammer.” Give that man a cigar.

Years ago, a cartoon in an advertising trade magazine depicted three views of an advertisement: from the perspective of the copywriter, the art director and the client. The copywriter envisioned the ad as a full page of text. The artist saw it as a photo, loads of white space, and three words. The client’s view was a picture of the factory.

A master graphic artist told me about an award he won early in his career. No cigar, but he got a special mention in a book on design. Unfortunately, it was a booby prize for creativity in designing an ad with a coupon in reverse type — white type on a black background. It was an artistic tour de force. But it was impossible to fill out the coupon — unless you had a pen with white ink.

Let me tell you something else about reverse type: It’s practically impossible to read. It is a violation of the rules of readability — how easily a message can be read; and legibility — how quickly each letter or word can be perceived and decoded.

Colin Wheildon grew up with printer’s ink in his blood. A journalist and son of a printer, he was raised on his father’s maxims about typography. One maxim was that serif fonts — those with long strokes at the bottom, like skinny legs on skis (e.g., Times New Roman)— are easier to read than sans-serif fonts (e.g., Calibri).

Wheildon went on to conduct his own research, published in Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes?

Turned out his father was right — but only for print. Studies show that on screens, sans-serif fonts are easier to read. The fine edges of serifs tend to go fuzzy on screens.

David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, gave his staff his own rules of readable type. Years later, he wrote an introduction to Wheildon’s book. He took the opportunity to lash out at designers who produce ads that are beautiful, but impossible to read.

“If you write advertisements for a living, as I do, it is a matter of life and death that what you write should be read by potential customers. It’s the headline and copy that do the selling,” Ogilvy wrote. “The tragedy is that the average advertisement is read by only four percent of people on their way through the publication.”

He put the blame squarely on art directors. If the artist “is an aesthete at heart — and most of them are — he doesn’t care … whether anybody reads the words. He regards them as mere elements in his pretty design. In many cases he blows away half the readers by choosing the wrong type.”

In a rather severe judgment, Ogilvy declared, “He should be boiled in oil.”

On a kinder note, Ogilvy added, “Fortunately, there are some art directors who do care. They do their best to design advertisements in such a way as to maximize reading.”

Unfortunately, they always “had to rely on their guesses as to what works best. All too often they guess wrong. Thanks to Colin Wheildon, they no longer have to guess.”

Here are some facts, not guesses, about readability for text printed in reverse compared with the same text printed black on white:

Text printed black on white: Good 70%, Fair 19%, Poor 11%

Text printed white on black: Good 0%, Fair 12%, Poor 88%

Text printed white on purple: Good 2%, Fair 16%, Poor 82%

Text printed white on royal blue: Good 0%, Fair 4%, Poor 96%.

I’ve had my own pitched battles with brilliant graphic artists about typography. No, I’m not being sarcastic. In fact, the more brilliant and creative the designer, the more likely I am to have an issue. I come from a tradition based on the word, not on images.

What really rankles me is when some graphic genius takes my carefully crafted words, the result of hours of sweating over a hot keyboard, and makes them unreadable by using reverse type, or all caps, or some exquisite typeface that is lovely to look at, but impossible to decipher.

As David Ogilvy said, “You may think that I exaggerate the importance of good typography. … But do you think an advertisement can sell if nobody can read it?”

Then again, you never know. Remember Dr. Seuss’ I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! 

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