Thursday, January 19, 2012


Basic web etiquette tells us we shouldn't write in uppercase letters because it's the same as shouting.

But more importantly, uppercase type is much harder to read, especially if it's used for more than a few words. So if you don't want people to read what you've written, by all means, type it in uppercase letters.

For instance, I was watching a TED video by physicist Geoffrey West about applying math to understand the growth of cities and corporations, but found myself continually distracted by his slides. Imagine you're listening to a voice-over containing some unfamiliar ideas; meanwhile you're asked to read this:

I just couldn't read it.

Below is what it should have looked like. Even without changing any of the other design, typography or copy-editing stupidities, the simple act of converting the words to upper and lower case and making the text a bit wider (so it fits into fewer lines) makes a lot of difference in readability:

A recent Smart Money article about the fine print in user agreements raised the same issue. A professor of graphic communications is quoted, exclaiming over his 32-page iPhone user agreement. Beyond the tiny margins and 4.5 point type, "the most striking design move is one that might surprise readers: the liberal use of uppercase letters. There are 19 separate blocks of all-cap text -- some five pages' worth -- in the iPhone agreement..."

The article continues,

An uppercase strategy might seem consumer-friendly, a good way to alert users to warnings, but Lawler says it's just the opposite -- it makes the paragraphs nearly impossible to visually penetrate. Indeed, experts in the field say that without the variety of different-shaped letters, readers tend to perceive words of all-cap text as inscrutable blocks. (One study says that it slows reading speed by as much as 20 percent.) So why would a company present its customers with such a thicket of forbidding type? The lifelong lettering expert sums up his tutorial with a sigh: "They don't want you to read it."
Maybe this is all inadvertent, or just a result of legal traditions? No. "And if you think any of [this] came to be by accident, you're mistaken, says Lawler. The world's best typesetters work on these documents, and most fine-print producers review the whole design with legal teams. "There are $500-an-hour lawyers who make those decisions," he says."

The only person on the side of readers in the case of legal documents is Matthew Butterick, a type designer turned lawyer. He's written a book called Typography for Lawyers, and, it appears, much if not all of its content is available on his website. Here's what he has to say about the use of uppercase:
All-caps best used spar­ingly.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use caps. Just use them judi­ciously. Caps are suit­able for head­ings shorter than one line (e.g., “Table of Author­i­ties”), head­ers, foot­ers, cap­tions, or other labels. Caps work at small point sizes. Caps work well on let­ter­head and busi­ness cards. Always add let­terspac­ing to caps to make them eas­ier to read, and make sure kern­ing is turned on....

All-caps para­graphs are an exam­ple of self-defeating typog­ra­phy. If you need read­ers to pay atten­tion to an impor­tant part of your doc­u­ment, the last thing you want is for them to skim over it. But that’s what inevitably hap­pens with all-caps para­graphs, because they’re so dif­fi­cult to read.
I omitted a paragraph from Butterick's text that was set in uppercase, which was mostly present to show just how annoying the practice is. One other point the paragraph made was that a run of bold and uppercase text is even worse.

Maybe it's time we all started complaining to companies whose contracts and user agreements include reams of uppercase text. Maybe some year, they'll stop doing it.


Michael Leddy said...

That's a persuasive demonstration. I'd like to see how you'd redo the whole slide.

peppery said...

Thanks for this post. I'm currently reading the revised Google privacy/terms agreement, and yep, smack in the middle are a couple of all-cap paragraphs. I'm now reading them extra carefully. :)