How Comic Sans got useful

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Whenever I want to impress someone at a party, I let them know I’m distantly related to Eric Gill. There’s always a pause as it sinks in. You know, Eric Gill. Eric Gill, for God’s sake – yes, the Eric Gill! They’re usually too polite to make a big deal of it, but to make sure they feel comfortable around me, I often end up doing most of the talking from then on in.

Well, he invented the typeface Gill Sans. It’s a sans-serif font and a British font – indeed, it would be hard to find a more British font. Its clean lines permeate the railways, the BBC, Penguin Books and the Church of England, and it has meshed itself with the establishment so deeply that it was a surprise to everyone to discover, in the late '80s, that its inventor once shagged his dog.

Yes. This font has a dark, dark history. So dark, in fact, that on unearthing it last year, Digital Arts magazine announced an immediate boycott, along with every typeface Gill ever molested (Perpetua, Joanna), in a piece titled “Art versus Evil”.

Digital Arts, I apologise for him. And perhaps you are right to leave this beautiful, clear-cut lettering out of your publication – but not necessarily for the reasons you think.

A recent paper by Daniel M. Oppenheimer entitled, pleasingly, “Fortune favours the Bold (and the italicised)” delivered a blow to lovely fonts everywhere by demonstrating that we absorb information better when it is a little hard to read. It seems our eyes just skim over Times New Roman and Helvetica, but stick when we reach a smudged, cramped line of type, finally ready to engage.

The researchers took classroom material and altered the fonts, switching from Helvetica and Arial to Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicised and Haettenschweiler. The teachers already taught each class in two sections. One section was taught using the “fluent” texts, the other, the “disfluent”. After several weeks, the researchers put the students through some tests. They found that those taught using dirtier fonts retained information significantly better.

To the experimenters this was a challenge to one of teaching’s basic assumptions - that when learning is easier, it’s better. Rather, adding a few superficial difficulties to the reading experience is more likely to make pupils engage with the text. This ties in with other studies in “disfluency” - which show that a slightly challenging delivery can make people process information more carefully.

Difficult by design

The results are counterintuitive, and not only for the world of teaching. Neuroscientists expanding on the study note that the field of digital advancements also relies on the same idea - that the easier and more fluent our access to information, the better. But perhaps our oversensitive brains demand a strategy with a little more nuance.

The novelist Jonathan Franzen touched on the problem recently when he said that e-books make for a less fulfilling reading experience. He associates this with the permanence of books (“A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around”), but perhaps the feeling is also something to do with the uncanny ease of moving the text into view. Words presented to us with the effortlessness and clarity of motorway signs demand shallow engagement. A screen’s familiar form presents no mental barrier between an advert for Starbucks and lines from Shakespeare.

Perhaps then we should take cues then from Gill’s life, if not his works, and seek out our information in unfamiliar and dog-eared forms.

Gill Sans.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”