I am playing with ideas for a menu that I want to add to some site designs and was wondering: How usable is vertical text in any portion of a site (specifically menus)?

For example

You can have text like this:

enter image description here

or you can have text like this:

enter image description here

Any input? Is horizontal text always best?


6 Answers 6


Your example shows left-to-right languages, and its better to keep the rotation of the letters the same since we see words as shapes rather than reading letter by letter.

That's probably why you see more feedback signs where the word is rotated 90 degrees rather than each letter:

enter image description here

When we read- we read the shape the word gives us, which also answers the question why you should use lower case letter rather than upper case letters in long texts. Humans recognize the shape, which we are taught when we learn the word.

enter image description here enter image description here

Reference: The Science of Word Recognition


This knowledge has been true for a very long time until Ph.D. Susan Weinschenk informed the community in her article 100 Things You Should Know About People: #19 — It’s a Myth That All Capital Letters Are Inherently Harder to Read that the shape theory is wrong:

It’s parallel letter recognition, not word shape — The old theory on word shapes comes from a psycholinguist named Cattell who came up with that theory in 1886. There was some evidence for it, but more recent research shows that it is letters you are recognizing and anticipating. You don’t recognize words by the shape of the word. You recognize familiar letter sequences. The research strongly suggests that you recognize all the letters in a word at the same time, and then you use the recognition of those letters to recognize the word.

Still, reading a word as a shape or in parallel, suggest that you should organize letter as you read them - not on top of each other.

  • @TheSheekGeek You're welcome! Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 17:29
  • 5
    It's worth reading Susan Weinscenks article about this subject Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 17:47
  • @RogerAttrill Thanks! I've updated my answer accordingly! Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 19:32
  • 1
    Indeed, the problem with most readability research is that it's sparse, dated, and often contradictory.
    – DA01
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 2:59
  • Wait, your reference itself criticizes the idea of word shapes. From the conclusion: "Word shape is no longer a viable model of word recognition." Commented Mar 21, 2013 at 13:18

It turns out that reading vertically rotated text (the first example) is not much slower, as reported in this academic research (Laarnia, Simolaa, Kojoa & Ristob, 2007). They claim English readers are practiced at this to begin with, when they read from collections of upright items, like books and video tapes (for those of you who can remember). They measured the speed of reading vertical text, and reported that it is not much slower.

I remind you what @Benny Skogberg wrote about the fact that we read words as a whole (be it shapes or letter collection). I add to that another psychological phenomenon called mental rotation (Sheprad & Metzler, 1992), which shows we can rotate images in our imagination at a constant rotational velocity. By inference, we can stipulate that people can read vertically rotated words in an efficient manner, though not as that of horizontal oriented ones.

In contrast, and as Benny noted, words which contain vertically stacked letters (the second example from the question) should be harder to read. To mentally transform these words to their original form, one has to mentally re-align the letters, before the word can be recognized, and I suppose this takes a greater mental effort.

Bottom line - people would be able to efficiently read vertically oriented words, but of course not as fast as horizontal ones.


Text in it's conventional orientation (horizontal for English, etc.) is always faster and more efficiently processed than an unconventional orientation, but optimal efficiency isn't always required.

For instance if there were 3 or 4 vertical menu options it wouldn't be so much of a burden, but as the number increases so does the difficulty of comprehension.

It's a balancing act: a vertically oriented text might save valuable space the benefit of which may be greater than the increased difficulty of comprehension.

My intuition says to use vertically oriented text very judiciously (or sparingly).

  • 1
    Like for example in an Excel worksheet with many narrow columns, setting the headers vertically can save the user from having to scroll horizontally, which is worse than reading vertical text. Additionally, users might need to read the vertically set labels only once in a session, which is very different from reading an article or a book. Benny is right and obelia too.
    – Juan Lanus
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 20:06

Text has a strong top-to-bottom flow. If text is shown rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise, that flow will move left to right with regard to the surrounding material. If text is rotated ninety degrees clockwise, the flow will be right to left. Text which is shown as a stack of upright letters will have a top-down flow, but will be harder to read, especially when using lowercase letters.

When it is necessary to show text in a vertical space, the best approach will depend upon the relation of that space and its contents to other nearby elements. If a leftward or rightward flow is desirable, use rotated text. If the eye should follow straight down past the text, use a stack of upright capital letters.


One place I have seen vertical text used more prominently is the hotel sign. I think the justification here is obviously to have the sign stick close to the building and not obstruct the street and also a clear and quick reading for the oncoming travelers (without having to tilt your head while driving :-) ). I also think the length of the words, number of such menus, and most importantly their placement matter.

enter image description here


There are two researches exactly on this topic:

Yu, Deyue; Park, Heejung; Gerold, David; Legge, Gordon E. (2010) Comparing reading speed for horizontal and vertical English text, Journal of Vision, 10 (2), 21 {Link}

On average, reading speed for horizontal text was 139% faster than marquee text and 81% faster than the rotated texts

Byrne, Michael D. (2002) Reading vertical text: Rotated vs. marquee, Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 46 (17), 1633-1635 {Link}

marquee text is indeed read more slowly than rotated text, and that rotated text is read more slowly than standard horizontal text. However, no evidence was found for a difference between left- and right-rotated text. Word frequency effects were larger in all vertical conditions relative to the horizontal control. These results suggest that rotated text is generally to be preferred to marquee-style presentation.

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.