What is the optimal line length when reading prose text from a monitor?
Certain aspects of usability have been researched for over 120 years. One active area of investigation has been the influence of line length on the speed of reading prose text. Weber (1881) made the first research-based recommendations when he suggested that an ideal line length was 4 inches (100 millimeters). He stated further that the maximum never should exceed 6 inches (150 mm). The same year Javel (1881) reported that line lengths should be no longer than 3.6 inches (90 mm). Two years later, Cohn (1883) confirmed that 3.6 inches (90 mm) was the best length, and that 4 inches (102 mm) was the longest admissible line length.
These recommendations were for book, magazine and newspaper publishers, and assumed the use of 10-point black characters typeset on white paper. There only were about 2,000 typewriters in use in the early 1880s. Almost 50 years later there was another flurry of activity on this topic.
One of the best studies was done by Tinker and Paterson in 1929. Using 10-point black type on white paper, they found that line lengths between 3 inches and 3.5 inches (75 to 90 mm) yielded the fastest reading performance. Paragraphs with line lengths of 7.3 inches (185 mm) were read slowest. The authors proposed that longer line lengths obviously require greater lateral eye movements, which seemed to make it more likely that users would lose their place within the text.
As computer monitors were used more in these studies, longer line lengths seemed to enable faster reading performance. Duchnicky and Kolers (1983) found that a full screen length of 7.4 inches (187 mm) resulted in 28% faster reading times over a 1/3 screen length of 2.4 inches (62 mm). In fact, both full screen and 2/3 screen line lengths were read reliably faster than the 1/3 screen length.
Dyson and Kipping (1998) also found that reading rates increased as characters per line increased. In their study using 12-point type, the 4-inch line length produced the slowest reading rate and the 7.3 inch line length produced the fastest. However, users preferred the 4-inch (102 mm) line lengths. They also reported that even though a single wide column was read reliably faster than three columns, users preferred the 3-column format.
Youngman and Scharff (1999) used 12-point type and found that with no margins, an 8-inch line length elicited the fastest overall reading speed, when compared with 4 and 6 inch line lengths. Again, users preferred the 4-inch line length.
Bernard, Fernandez and Hull (2002) had participants read 12-point prose text with line lengths of 9.6 inches (245 mm), 5.7 inches (145 mm) and 3.3 inches (85 mm). They found no reliable differences in the average reading speed for the differing line lengths. Their adult subjects preferred the two shorter line lengths.
The research also suggests that line lengths (columns) can be too short. Dyson and Kipping (1998) found that a line length of 5.5 inches (140 mm) was read reliably faster than a narrower 1.8 inch (46 mm) line length. A more recent study by Dyson and Haselgrove (2001) reported that a 4-inch line length resulted in faster reading than the shorter line length of 1.7 inches
What can we conclude when users are reading prose text from monitors? Users tend to read faster if the line lengths are longer (up to 10 inches). If the line lengths are too short (2.5 inches or less) it may impede rapid reading. Finally, users tend to prefer lines that are moderately long (4 to 5 inches).
Bernard, M., Fernandez, M. and Hull, S. (2002), The effects of line length on children and adults' online reading performance, Usability News, 4.2. [This article had a line length of 9 inches on the screen (1024x768 pixel resolution) and 6.2 inches when printed]
Cohn, H. (1883), Die Hygiene des Auges in den Schulen, Leipzig. [See Tinker and Paterson, 1929]
Duchnicky, J.L. and Kolers, P.A. (1983). Readability of text scrolled on visual display terminals as a function of window size, Human Factors, 25, 683-692.
Dyson, M.C. and Haselgrove, M. (2001), The influence of reading speed and line length on the effectiveness of reading from a screen, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 54, 585-612.
Dyson, M.C. and Kipping, G.J. (1998), The effects of line length and method of movement on patterns of reading from screen, Visible Language, 32, 150-181.
Dyson, M.C. and Kipping, G.J. (1997), The legibility of screen formats: Are three columns better than one? Computers & Graphics, December, 21(6), 703-712
Javel, E. (1881), L'evolution de la typographic consideree dans ses rapports avec l'hygience de la vue, Revue Scientifique, 1, 802-813. [See Tinker and Paterson, 1929]
Tinker, M.A. and Paterson, D.G. (1929), Studies of typographical factors influencing speed of reading: Length of line, The Journal of Applied Psychology, 13(3), 205-219. [This journal article had a line length of 3.8 inches (97 mm)]
Weber, A. (1881), Ueber die Augenuntersuchungen in den hoheren schulen zu Darmstadt, Abtheilung fur Gesunheitspflege, Marz. [See Tinker and Paterson, 1929]
Youngman, M. and Scharff, L. (1998), Text width and margin width influences on readability of GUIs. [This Web page had a line length of 15 inches on the screen (1024x768 pixel resolution) and 7.8 inches when printed]
Very interesting article. I work with an advertising company as a graphic designer. We are always at odds with our clients about how typesetting differs from word processing and the common issue seems to be a lack of knowledge by people trained as "word processors". Schools who teach word processing appear to be stuck about 10 -20 years in the past in terms of understanding "what" type is and how it works. They think that the computer is simply a typewriter attached to a monitor. I look forward to reading more of the studies you provided here.
Sign up to get our Newsletter delivered straight to your inbox
HFI may use â€ścookiesâ€ť or â€śweb beaconsâ€ť to track how Users use the Website. A cookie is a piece of software that a web server can store on Usersâ€™ PCs and use to identify Users should they visit the Website again. Users may adjust their web browser software if they do not wish to accept cookies. To withdraw your consent after accepting a cookie, delete the cookie from your computer.
HFI believes that every User should know how it utilizes the information collected from Users. The Website is not directed at children under 13 years of age, and HFI does not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under 13 years of age online. Please note that the Website may contain links to other websites. These linked sites may not be operated or controlled by HFI. HFI is not responsible for the privacy practices of these or any other websites, and you access these websites entirely at your own risk. HFI recommends that you review the privacy practices of any other websites that you choose to visit.
HFI is based, and this website is hosted, in the United States of America. If User is from the European Union or other regions of the world with laws governing data collection and use that may differ from U.S. law and User is registering an account on the Website, visiting the Website, purchasing products or services from HFI or the Website, or otherwise using the Website, please note that any personally identifiable information that User provides to HFI will be transferred to the United States. Any such personally identifiable information provided will be processed and stored in the United States by HFI or a service provider acting on its behalf. By providing your personally identifiable information, User hereby specifically and expressly consents to such transfer and processing and the uses and disclosures set forth herein.
In the course of its business, HFI may perform expert reviews, usability testing, and other consulting work where personal privacy is a concern. HFI believes in the importance of protecting personal information, and may use measures to provide this protection, including, but not limited to, using consent forms for participants or â€śdummyâ€ť test data.
HFI may use personally identifiable information collected through the Website for the specific purposes for which the information was collected, to process purchases and sales of products or services offered via the Website if any, to contact Users regarding products and services offered by HFI, its parent, subsidiary and other related companies in order to otherwise to enhance Usersâ€™ experience with HFI. HFI may also use information collected through the Website for research regarding the effectiveness of the Website and the business planning, marketing, advertising and sales efforts of HFI. HFI does not sell any User information under any circumstances.
HFI may disclose personally identifiable information collected from Users to its parent, subsidiary and other related companies to use the information for the purposes outlined above, as necessary to provide the services offered by HFI and to provide the Website itself, and for the specific purposes for which the information was collected. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information at the request of law enforcement or governmental agencies or in response to subpoenas, court orders or other legal process, to establish, protect or exercise HFIâ€™s legal or other rights or to defend against a legal claim or as otherwise required or allowed by law. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information in order to protect the rights, property or safety of a User or any other person. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information to investigate or prevent a violation by User of any contractual or other relationship with HFI or the perpetration of any illegal or harmful activity. HFI may also disclose aggregate, anonymous data based on information collected from Users to investors and potential partners. Finally, HFI may disclose or transfer personally identifiable information collected from Users in connection with or in contemplation of a sale of its assets or business or a merger, consolidation or other reorganization of its business.
If a User includes such Userâ€™s personally identifiable information as part of the User posting to the Website, such information may be made available to any parties using the Website. HFI does not edit or otherwise remove such information from User information before it is posted on the Website. If a User does not wish to have such Userâ€™s personally identifiable information made available in this manner, such User must remove any such information before posting. HFI is not liable for any damages caused or incurred due to personally identifiable information made available in the foregoing manners. For example, a User posts on an HFI-administered forum would be considered Personal Information as provided by User and subject to the terms of this section.
Information about Users that is maintained on HFIâ€™s systems or those of its service providers is protected using industry standard security measures. However, no security measures are perfect or impenetrable, and HFI cannot guarantee that the information submitted to, maintained on or transmitted from its systems will be completely secure. HFI is not responsible for the circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures relating to the Website by any Users or third parties.
Human Factors International, Inc.
PO Box 2020
410 W Lowe Ave
Fairfield IA 52556
HFI reserves the right to cancel any course up to 14 (fourteen) days prior to the first day of the course. Registrants will be promptly notified and will receive a full refund or be transferred to the equivalent class of their choice within a 12-month period. HFI is not responsible for travel expenses or any costs that may be incurred as a result of cancellations.
$100 processing fee if cancelling within two weeks of course start date.
There will be no audio or video recording allowed in class. Students who have any disability that might affect their performance in this class are encouraged to speak with the instructor at the beginning of the class.
The course and training materials and all other handouts provided by HFI during the course are published, copyrighted works proprietary and owned exclusively by HFI. The course participant does not acquire title nor ownership rights in any of these materials. Further the course participant agrees not to reproduce, modify, and/or convert to electronic format (i.e., softcopy) any of the materials received from or provided by HFI. The materials provided in the class are for the sole use of the class participant. HFI does not provide the materials in electronic format to the participants in public or onsite courses.