Research Results, Standards, and Creativity

Subject: Research Results, Standards, and Creativity
From: "George F. Hayhoe" <george -at- ghayhoe -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1999 11:17:53 -0400

Graham Wyatt wrote:

<<Mr Anonymous mentioned research that indicated that using
type set in all caps is a bad thing. I've not seen the
actual paper, but Karen Schriver mentions it in Dynamics in
Document Design. What she actually says is that reading
speed is reduced by 13 to 20 percent. That fits in with my
personal experience and I have no argument with that, but do
we really know if that is a good or a bad thing? Is reading
speed a measure of retention or understanding, or of any
other factor that might be important? Could it be
that sometimes we might want our readers to slow down? Could
the use of all caps be a useful way of adding emphasis,
precisely because it does make things a little awkward for
the reader? We just don't know.>>

I'm a firm believer that standards are a good thing, that
they foster creativity rather than stifle it, and that the
best standards are based on sound understanding of sound
research. The problem with the last part of this credo is
that to base standards on research, we need to understand
the research.

Is it correct to say that, based on the research that Graham
cites, we should establish and implement a standard that
says we should never use all caps? No. Why not? Because such
a standard is not based on sound understanding of the
research and its implications for practice.

As Graham points out, the research indicates that text set
in all caps reduces reading speed. Reduced reading speed
generally results in reduced comprehension. It is therefore
generally unwise to set text type in all caps because we
want to enhance rather than reduce comprehension. That
doesn't mean that all caps shouldn't ever be used--as
display type in headings, for example.

Today's "wired" equation of all caps with shouting and
therefore rudeness is probably another reason to avoid all
caps. It would be interesting to see some research that
addressed the influence of such perceptions on reader
receptivity to content. (I can't help but wonder if the
prospective neighbor who recently sent a 6-page all-cap
letter to the residents of my subdivision understood that
her document design choices might have pissed the neighbors
off almost as much as the zoning waiver she was asking our
support for.)

We need to better understand the research. Many of us know
only what we've heard or read about it, and much of that
information is fragmentary and all too often misinterprets
or misapplies the research. We saw the implications of that
problem a while back on this list when we discussed George
Miller's conclusions about short-term memory reported in
"The Magical Number Seven."

Similarly, we need to better understand the standards, and
attain a level of mastery that gives us the confidence both
to follow and flout them when appropriate in our practice.

--George Hayhoe (george -at- ghayhoe -dot- com)

George Hayhoe Associates
Voice: +1 (803) 642-2156
Fax: +1 (803) 642-9325

APEX '99 Grand Award for Publication Excellence

Awards of Distinguished Technical Communication
South Carolina/Carolina Foothills STC Chapters
1998-99 Technical Publications Competition

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