Clear-IP Research Projects

Clear-IP Research Projects

The Clear Information Presentation research consortium examines a variety of issues related to visual design and usability, from typographic design, to the effects of lighting, contrast, and background noise, to highway signage and in-vehicle interface details. Having grown out of a research collaboration with Monotype Inc., the consortium often focuses on topics related to text legibility, but also has an eye on wider design practices and applications.

Simulator-Based Work

In early 2012, Monotype Imaging Inc. approached the MIT AgeLab about developing a way to study the effects of on-screen typography in the vehicle. A study was designed in which research participants drove the Miss Daisy driving simulator while also making selections using a simulated point-of-interest menu system. The menus were set either in Frutiger (a humanist-style typeface), or Eurostile (a square grotesque). Results demonstrated that the use of Frutiger was associated with faster task completion times and less time spent glancing to the screen.

Items Featuring This Work

  • Reimer, B., Mehler, B., Dobres, J., Coughlin, J. F., Matteson, S., Gould, D., Chahine, N., and Levantovsky, V (2014). Assessing the Impact of Typeface Design in a Text Rich Automotive User Interface. Ergonomics.
  • Reimer, B., Mehler, B., Wang, Y., Mehler, A., McAnulty, H., Mckissick, E., Coughlin, J.F., Matteson, S., Levantovsky, V., Gould, D., Chahine, N. & Greve, G. (2012). An exploratory study on the impact of typeface design in a text rich user interface on off-road glance behavior. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicle Applications (AutoUI 2012). Portsmouth, NH.
  • Reimer, B (2015). Chasing Glances. The Huffington Post, accessed 11 December 2015.
  • Dobres, J., Mehler B., & Reimer, B. (2013). Knowledge of All FontsVision Zero International. Jan 2013. UKIP Media & Events LTD, Dorking, Surrey, United Kingdom.

First Desktop-Based Study

Based on the results of the simulator study, Monotype and the AgeLab had many more questions about what might affect legibility-at-a-glance. It quickly became apparent that it would be too costly and time consuming to study all of these issues with a large simulator. Instead, a desktop-based method was developed. Participants would view single words (or gibberish “non-words”) presented briefly on the screen, simulating glance-like reading. The method is designed to estimate the amount of time needed for accurate reading. More legible conditions should require less reading time. The first study that employed this method replicated the findings from the simulator, showing a reading time advantage for humanist-style type compared to square grotesque. This experiment, which was more time efficient than the simulator, also compared two different contrast polarities (black-on-white text vs. black-on-white).

Items Featuring This Work

  • Dobres, J., Chahine, N., Reimer, B., Gould, D., Mehler, B., & Coughlin, J. F (2016). Utilising Psychophysical Techniques to Investigate the Effects of Age, Typeface Design, Size and Display Polarity on Glance Legibility. Ergonomics.
  • Dobres, J., Chahine, N., Reimer, B., Gould, D., Mehler, B., Pugh, B., & Arredondo, S (2014). An art meets science: subtle typeface design characteristics affect word legibility in brief glances. Vision Science Society Annual Meeting. St. Pete Beach, FL (Poster).
  • Reimer, B (2015). Chasing Glances. The Huffington Post, accessed 11 December 2015.

The Effect of Character Size

Given that something as “small” as typeface style can meaningfully impact legibility, we became curious as to how typographic design interacts with the factor of size. Do all fonts scale down equally well, or are some designs better suited to small sizes than others? In this study, we once again compared Frutiger and Eurostile to each other, but at text sizes of 4mm and 3mm. We found that their designs interacted quite differently with the pixel grid, resulting in dramatic effects on legibility.

Items Featuring This Work

The Chinese “Bake-Off”

Given the AgeLab’s successes in assessing legibility using desktop-based methods and the increasing interest in the growing Chinese market, we applied our methodology to a study of five different Simplified Chinese typefaces. This “bake off” comparison pitted several typefaces from the same stylistic family against each other, as well as one less legible typeface, which we used as a “reality check”.

Items Featuring This Work

Type Styles in Chinese

The results of the “bake off” study (described above) suggested that the same subtleties the AgeLab had found in Latin (English) typography were also present for Chinese. We therefore conducted a follow-up study using the winner of the bake off, comparing regular and bold variations of the typeface, as well as two different contrast polarities (black-on-white and white-on-black).

Items Featuring This Work

  • Dobres, J., Chahine, N., Reimer, B., Gould, & Zhao, N (2016). The effects of Chinese typeface design, stroke weight, and contrast polarity on glance based legibility. Displays.

Font Weight

Typographers have long known that there is a relationship between a font’s weight, or line thickness, and the legibility of the text. In this study, we investigated the relative legibility of four different weights of the Frutiger typeface (Light, Regular, Medium, and Bold). We also examined the effects of two different rendering engines—two different ways of translating the design of the typeface into actual pixels on screen.

Items Featuring This Work

  • Dobres, J., Reimer, B., and Chahine, N. (2016). The effect of font weight and rendering system on glance-based text legibility. Proceedings of the 2016 International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications. Ann Arbor, MI.

Ambient Illumination

An increasing body of evidence suggests that text legibility is strongly affected by the amount of light entering the eye. Under dim illumination, the pupil expands over the imperfect surface of the eye, which distorts incoming visual information and may lead to increased errors during reading. In collaboration with an automotive company, the AgeLab and Monotype investigated how the brightness of the text display interacted with the overall brightness of the environment when reading text at two different sizes.

Items Featuring This Work

  • Dobres, J., Chahine, N., & Reimer, B. (2017). Effects of Ambient Illumination, Contrast Polarity, and Letter Size on Text Legibility Under Glance-like Reading. Applied Ergonomics 60(C) 68-73.

Small, Narrow, and Loud

Over the course of our typographic investigations, it became apparent that factors affecting the typeface’s perceived size would generally exert a strong influence over its legibility. While not surprising on the face of it, “size factors” warranted further study. This study examined typeface legibility at two sizes, in regular and “condensed” (or narrow) variants, and in uppercase and lowercase. While uppercase text would appear larger than the lowercase equivalent, research suggests that uppercase lettering is less differentiated and easier to confuse, which may hinder legibility at a glance.

Legibility Under Blur and Noise

Many of the AgeLab’s typographic studies indicated that legibility thresholds (the amount of time needed to read words accurately) increased dramatically with age. As we get older, the visual system undergoes many well-known types of degradation. But whether these degradations are more strongly situated in the eye or the brain, and how they might affect text legibility, are ongoing research questions. In this experiment, we degraded on-screen text with varying degrees of either optical blurring, or the addition of visual noise, to see what effects these might have on older (60s) and younger (20s) participants.

Items Featuring This Work

  • Wolfe, B.A., Dobres, J., Kosovicheva, A.A., Rosenholtz, R. & Reimer, B. (2016). Reduction in Legibility with Degradation in Older and Younger Observers. To be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Vision Sciences Society. St. Pete’s Beach, Florida. May 13-18, 2016.
  • Wolfe, B.A., Dobres, J., Kosovicheva, A., Rosenholtz, R. & Reimer, B. (in press). Age-related differences in the legibility of degraded text. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

Distance and Screen Quality

Our early work in typeface legibility suggested that not all fonts perform equally well when their designs are laid out (or “rendered”) on a screen’s pixel grid, particularly at smaller sizes. This study examines how size, distance from the screen, and that screen’s resolution (or fidelity) affect the legibility of text.

Visual Crowding

We rarely read words in isolation. More often than not, we see many words together, as when reading paragraphs in a book or scanning over a menu on our smartphones. When text is grouped together, words and letters can “crowd” one another and reduce the overall legibility of the display. This study sets out to examine how the overall size of a group of words, its typeface, and the amount of space between them can affect our ability to identify the words accurately.

Ambient Illumination, Text Contrast, and Display Polarity

This study extends previous research on the effect ambient (environment) illumination and text legibility by examining how ambient illumination interacts with display polarity and several different levels of text contrast. The work has implications for the design and implementation of in-vehicle devices, which may be used under low illumination (night) and very bright illumination (daylight).

Dual Task Effects on Legibility

This study extends our work on the effects on ambient illumination, examining how switching between a bright surrounding environment (or dark one) to a bright in-vehicle display (or a dark one) affects the legibility of the displayed text.

Highway Signage

In 2004, the Federal Highway Administration approved the use of a new font for highway signage, called Clearview. This font was designed to put legibility first, and was seen by many as an improvement over the older signage font, Highway Gothic. In 2016, the Administration revoked its interim approval for the use of Clearview, much to the chagrin of the design community. This study examines the glance legibility of the two signage fonts under different color combinations.

Items Fearing This Work

  • To be presented at the 2017 meeting of the Transporatation Review Board.
  • Accepted for early publication in the Transportation Research Record (early 2017).

Typographic “Bake Off”

This study applies Clear-IP’s existing methodology to a direct comparison of eight commonly used Sans Serif typefacds, in order to assess their relative glance legibility. The study discusses the relationships between those fonts' design characteristics and their legibility at a glance.

Text Legibility Against Video

This study will examine the legibility of text against driving video, emulating a scenario often observed in in-vehicle device screens such as backup cameras. Text legibility was assessed against video of both day and night scenarios, and at two levels of contrast (either black or white "high contrast" text, depending on the video, and medium gray).

Mediating Text Against Unpredictable Backgrounds

Designers are often challenged to develop designs that will maintain the legibility of text regardless of the type of background content (music interfaces with album art, point-of-interest systems with map tiles, etc.). Often, this achieved via a “middle layer” that softens the background (translucency, blurring, etc.). This study examined the relative legibility of several different “middle layer” techniques at several levels of strength, including a semi-transparent layer, Gaussian blurring, and two advanced methods of visual information filtering.

Type Weight and Middle Layer against Unpredictable Backgrounds

High pixel density displays allow a greater range of type weights to be used in automotive, smart phone, and other digital interface. As such, there is need to understand how font weight design choices interact with attempts to maintain the legibility of text on unpredictable backgrounds. Leveraging our understanding of "middle layer" techniques from our previous study, we investigated multiple font weights in combination with the most successful middle layers from our "Type Weight and Middle Layer against Unpredictable Backgrounds."

Principles of Scientifically Grounded Typographic Design

Providing designers with scientifically grounded 'rules of thumb' is the goal of this guideline document, academic paper, and series of multimedia shorts. The project will draw upon our now considerable catalog of typographic and design-centric research, combining findings from both published and unpublished Clear-IP experiments to provide specific, straightforward design recommendations.

Upcoming Projects

Projects for Spring 2018 are presently under discussion within the consortium, and are likely to focus on factors relevant to text legibility in complex overlay, augmented reality and/or virtual reality contexts.



MIT AgeLab
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