I'm working on a UI that has a list of items (a dozen years) in a multi-column list.

I know from past research that users will read list of items across columns top-to-bottom rather than left-to-right.

I'm having trouble sourcing those studies though.

Does anyone have an actual study that demonstrates this? Rather than a blogger's opinion on it.


2 Answers 2


It is why text columns in newspapers work.

The reason is in gestalt laws, the law of proximity: We perceive items placed close together as belonging together. Columns are further apart than the items within them.

Here is a nice (if old) page illustrating this: https://isle.hanover.edu/Ch05Object/Ch05ProxSim_evt.html


As Gerda said, it's related to Gestalt, but there are some considerations (also based on Gestalt). When elements are closer together on one axis than the other, the reading changes. This is called the law of Proximity, but it also involves the law of Common Fate. > The Gestalt law of common fate states that humans perceive visual

elements that move in the same speed and/or direction as parts of a single stimulus. A common example of this is a flock of birds. When several birds fly in the same direction, we normally assume that they belong to a single group.


To better explain this, consider the following image

Insert image description here

If you place the elements close enough to the horizontal axis, you'll read these elements from left to right.

However, if they're closer together on the vertical axis, read them from top to bottom.

Cultural considerations

The above is true for Western languages. However, the situation is quite different for East Asian languages. While there is no set standard in most languages (contrary to what most people believe, these languages are usually written from left to right these days), many of them use vertical writing. And when they do, it's preferred over reading horizontally, since each glyph represents a square space.

For example, the following image shows the same space for characters in both axes. Nevertheless, it must be read from top to bottom and then from right to left. You can see that western numerals are rotated to fit this orientation.

Insert image description here

Although (as mentioned) it's becoming less common to keep the RTL alignment, it's important to remember that if the language has columns, regardless of spacing, the columns take precedence over the lines.

Finally, we have the Arabic languages. With some specific exceptions due to design, readers of Arabic languages will always prefer rows over columns. There are many considerations on this topic, so I'll leave you with theW3C Text Layout for Arabic Languages page.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.