Could a change of font change your life? This is no whimsical question.
For years, researchers and user experience designers have altered typefaces, looking for the perfect mix of attributes to make reading text easier to understand for those with conditions like Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder defined by impairing levels of inattention, disorganization, and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity (DSM-5)
Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder (SLD) that causes problems with certain abilities used for learning, such as reading and writing (NHS)
With therapies for ADHD being mostly medicative, and Dyslexia itself being a lifelong condition, it is easy to see the allure of changing a simple font to make reading a less-intimidating process for individuals suffering from these conditions.
With this in mind, take a look at an image that’s been taking Twitter by storm.
Something super impressive I got shown today, how you can increase reading speed by playing on font weight: pic.twitter.com/ZdykiFQalx
— Christophe Pasquier ?? (@Christophepas) May 17, 2022
First, some background: When you’re reading a sentence, your eyes don’t sweep through it, they dart from point to point, these are called fixations.
Bionic Reading, a method of text formatting patented by Swiss typography designer Renato Casutt, promises to accentuate this process by selectively bolding the first few letters of a word. If you found the example on the right easier to read and fathom, then you may be the target audience for the latest trend in User Experience design (UX).
The tweet garnered tens of thousands of responses, with some claiming it helped them feel like they unlocked “100 per cent” of their brain.
Reading this, I feel limitless, finally unlocking 100% of my brain.
This mysterious API is called "Bionic Reading"; you can use it today.
A full story ? ? pic.twitter.com/jCWyRnIsnk
— Ahmad Awais (@MrAhmadAwais) May 20, 2022
As Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran, who heads the clinical neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience centre at The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), explains, it’s similar to how our eyes can pick out a tiny ball of mud from a pile of rice.
“Research on attention and concentration in the area of cognitive psychology has already established that when a stimulus has features which differentiate it from others (differences in colour, size and styles), the human mind naturally has a tendency to pay attention to that,” said Rajeswaran, adding that the ability of the brain to fill in gaps of information might also be at play.
Significant interest in the technique has emerged from those who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—a condition that is estimated to affect 5.9 per cent of the youth and 2.9 per cent of adults worldwide (according to data from studies in all regions except Africa). ADHDers often find difficulty reading dense chunks of non-formatted text—and bionic reading promises to make the process easier.
While little research is available on this method, studies have shown that ADHDers perform better in reading tasks when parts of the text are highlighted in colour. A study published in 2000 found that students with attentional deficits were better able to maintain attention to tasks if “novelty is added”. A 2012 literature review noted that students with ADHD and without co-occurring disabilities saw no benefit from taking psychostimulant medication, but could improve in reading scores if there was more visual stimulation in both reading and math material.
Is “Bionic Reading” fulfilling this purpose with more visually stimulating text? The verdict is yet unclear. But many on ADHD Twitter have been swearing by the method, with calls for its integration into other reading apps like Kindle.
So a few days ago I tweeted about @bionicreading . For those with ADHD who find it hard to read or have to go back 52 times to read the same paragraph Bionic Reading just released a free convertor. So now we can convert our ebooks…
— The Black Spectrum – Diane Laidlaw (@theblkspectrum) May 23, 2022
I’ve always been a fast reader, but my ADHD often makes me zone out and realize I wasn’t paying attention to what I was reading. I also tend to skim emails and miss important info (also because ADHD.) This bionic text is a game changer. https://t.co/GJVdVcB7GB
— Ms. Rogers ?? (@hapa_hawaiian) May 20, 2022
However, the verdict is still out on whether it can help with ADHD.
Dr Rajeswaran points out that ADHD does not affect reading comprehension as much as it does attention: “The case of ADHD is very different from Dyslexia. In ADHD a major challenge for the person is to be able to concentrate on a task itself. Once concentrated, the person generally has no issues processing the written material.”
It feels distracting to me. I was more comfortable reading the left one(normal mode). Bionic mode felt like something trying to force my brain in stressing some letters.
— Faceless (@boy1729) May 18, 2022
While such font garnishing might prove more difficult to read for some, there is research to suggest that the longer you take to read something, the more you understand it. In 2018 researchers from RMIT Australia designed a font filled with seemingly broken letters, with parts missing from the typeface. Despite the holes, it is possible to read, as your mind fills in the gaps. Sans Forgetica is based on the principle of “desirable difficulty – where an obstruction is added to the learning process that requires us to put in just enough effort, leading to better memory retention to promote deeper cognitive processing.”
Casutt’s website also claims that Bionic Reading can help those with dyslexia. “We have received feedback from those affected that thanks to Bionic Reading they immediately understood the content of various texts the first time they read them, which was impossible without Bionic Reading.”
Some developers have already created extensions that let you try bionic reading in your browser, in PDF readers and a few iOS apps.
Can typefaces make a difference for Dyslexia? Dutch designer Christian Boer sought to do just this with the “Dyslexie” font—which is packed with design elements that where the bottom half of letters are bolded so those with dyslexia are less likely to mix up the now-more-distinctive letters. Those with the condition are prone to three-dimensional thinking—viewing words and letters as a shifting mass, something flipping them horizontally and vertically, making it difficult to discern similar-sized letters like “b” and “d”.
While the font has garnered thousands of downloads, a 2017 study found no difference in reading ability between children with dyslexia who used it and children who did not. Some studies even found that the standard Times New Roman fonts could be made more accessible just by increasing their letter spacing.
Dr Rajeswaran also concurs: “The science of dyslexia is far from perfect and we are yet to understand if the law of closure (brain filling in the gap in information) is equally applicable to those with learning disabilities or not.”
If this has gotten you interested in faster ways of reading, you may want to check out the “speed reading” space—a community dedicated to maximising your ability to read and comprehend information. “Space reading”, a method where you focus your attention on the spaces between words, also appears to make use of how your eyes flit from word to word in a series of rapid motions called saccade and can let you skim texts with more ease.