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Rick Griffith's cult of letters: Do complicated typefaces make people smarter?

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Last week's cover story, "Extra Bold" deconstructs the weird, wonderful world of Denver designer Rick Griffith, a man who's constantly scrutinizing how words and letter-forms are used everywhere -- including the Denver School System. Griffith might be on to something, since a new paper reports that the type used in schools does matter -- and ungainly typefaces may aid learning.

The paper, published in the journal Cognition and featuring the wondrous title "Fortune favors the Bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes," notes that, contrary to popular belief, making concepts harder to learn about and grasp -- a concept called disfluency -- actually improves retention and understanding.

Among other experiments, the researchers involved had teachers in Chesterfield, Ohio use materials such as worksheets, handouts and slide presentations that had been reformatted so they featured some of the most disfluent typfaces imaginable, including Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicized and Haettenshweiler. After several weeks, the researchers tested the students involved and found that, on the whole, they performed significantly better than students who had been taught using nice, clean Helvetica and Arial.

The scientists concluded:

The potential for improving educational practices through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered. Fluency demonstrates how we have the potential to make big improvements in the performance of our students and education system as a whole.

As a writer at Wired magazine noted, such studies beg the question: Will iPads and other e-readers make reading text so effortless that we'll end up retaining far less than we have before, even as we consume far more information from all of our gadgetry? Maybe the solution is to fall back on the letterpress machines and other age-old type processes espoused by Griffith, a man who is not above spending several hours typesetting a sentiment card when the same project could be completed in moments using a computer printer, because he believes the effort helps give meaning to the words he uses in the card.

While the results of such work might not be as flawless and tidy as a mass-produced version, it might have much more of an impact if that new research is correct.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Rick Griffith: If Denver's letter connoisseur were a typeface, what type would he be?" Follow Joel Warner on Twitter @joelmwarner

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