Double spaces (or not), Design, and Dyslexia

By Molly Northrup Bloom

I gave up the end-of-sentence double space long ago. I remember when I started working for Jen and she said not to use it, so I dropped it without question. Once it was pointed out, I came to view double space as a blight that should be eradicated. My brain had a harder time telling my thumb to stop the space bar two-step, but it didn’t take long. It is strange that it never occurred to me to research why I used two spaces for so long. I figured it was a throwback, and I know Jen had design-related reasons, but I am a curious person in a company of curious people. How did I let this historic habit go so easily? Once it was pointed out, I agreed and moved on. I hadn’t thought about it much in all these years. No client ever thought it was an issue, and new colleagues never argued for two spaces.

When I stumbled on this article, “Please don’t use this study to justify your horrible habit of using two spaces after periods” it grabbed my attention for two reasons: 1) It seems to prove we are somewhat right to give up the double space in the sense that it doesn’t significantly matter for our work; 2) I have a dyslexic husband and daughter, so I am always keen to understand more about how one reads. The Double Space study this article sites has a small sample size of 60 college students (there are currently over 15 million college students enrolled in the U.S.), but it is from a legitimate psychology publication, so now I am now both intrigued and haunted. The study finds that the use of double space does aid in processing text (especially for those participants who already use double spaces in their typing). Comprehension of the given paragraphs was not affected by double or single space. However, the study also noted, that “the passages used in the current study were relatively short and may not have been long enough or difficult enough to detect subtle global differences due to punctuation spacing.”

How did I not dig deeper into this earlier? Jen loves fonts, I love punctuation, and I have family members with language learning disabilities! It seems like the kind of query I would seek out for at least some of those reasons. At Eden, we never just approach design as something that should just look great, but also how people will use and perceive the design. We make our clients fill out design briefs, endure “ideal client” exercises, and provide carefully reviewed content before we even get to the design phase.

I guess if we were in the business of book publishing we would consider the double space more. There seems to be a good argument for keeping double spaces in books and some articles especially if it gives readers an assist. This is ultimately why the researchers did this study because the American Psychological Association Manual states that two spaces should follow (after previous editions stated one space). I suspect it is helpful to those readers who have a harder time with a crowded font like dyslexics (I’ll research that next). Double space appears to better denote the end of a sentence. It may not help with comprehension, but if it improves readability for those who struggle, it should be considered. Were any of those 60 college students in the double space study dyslexic? It’s possible, according to the International Dyslexia Association, 15-20% of the population has a language-based learning disability, of which dyslexia is the most common. It seems that the students in the study were selected with only two requirements: being native speakers of American English and having normal or corrected-to-normal vision. In the end, this is what the article’s researchers conclude, “Thus, while period spacing does influence our processing of text, we should probably be arguing passionate-ly [sic] about things that are more important.”

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So, why did we start ditching the double space? Typography. According to this article in Slate, James Felici, the author of The Complete Manual of Typography, notes that typesetters in Europe started consistently using a single space around the early 20th century and everybody followed suit. When the typewriter came along, the machine font apparently caused us to go back to double spaces because the typewriter’s monospaced font dictated two spaces for ease of reading. That font was ditched in the 1970s and proportional fonts have been used ever since for most electric typewriters and personal computers.

Hank by Henry WinklerA fun side note: did you know that actor Henry Winkler (yes, the Fonz) is dyslexic, and he created a book series for children using a font created by an award-winning, dyslexic designer who created the font as his graduate project? Guess what is one of the ten most important features of the font? “The distance between individual letters and words is enlarged, which makes reading more convenient and avoids the crowding effect.” More space! You can read about all features of the font and the designer here. It’s a cool story and maybe a good lesson for us all. Designers are really only doing a good job at design if the humans interacting with it can do so with relative ease. This may not be so important for most website landing pages, say, but for more complex reading (like the psychology manual that inspired the study) it just may be.