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I'm well aware that text in ALL CAPITALS is harder to read than text in lower case or mixed case, for whatever reason.

But what about Sᴍᴀʟʟ Cᴀᴘs? With a bit of Googling I can't find any references for the relative ease of readability of small caps. My intuition says Sᴍᴀʟʟ Cᴀᴘs would be easier to read than ALL CAPS but not quite as easy as mixed case... but I know well enough to not trust my intuition. So does anyone have any data or pointers?

Answers with sources and references preferred, but even just some pointers to useful discussion would be helpful.

[My specific context is more related to titles than to body text, for what it's worth, but titles that need to be readable from a good distance with a lot of other visual distraction nearby.]

  • In small doses, it has been shown that all-caps vs mixed-caps has no affect on reading speed. I'm unfamiliar with small-caps being thrown in the mix, though I'd assume similar. – Evil Closet Monkey Jan 27 '15 at 14:27
  • Most fonts contain upper and lower case letter glyphs with proper hinting for mixed case text (which includes all-lowercase). Few contain adjustments for all-uppercase. Considerably more than that contain true small-caps and usually include proper hinting then. Faux SC are always hinted horribly. Unicode SC (like OP used) are actually petite-caps at x-height, real SC are slightly larger. This reduced availability probably makes research scarce. Nota bene: Most cyrillic lowercase letters are indistinguishable from small-caps (in print style) and so are certain roman ones, but greek ones hardly. – Crissov Jan 29 '15 at 19:14
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Based on UX.Movement: Why Text in All Caps is Hard for Users to Read

The reason of the worse readability of uppercase vs lowercase is the lower contrast of shape.

Small caps still has worse contrast of shape than lower case, so it'll still be less readable.

There is also some relationship with familiarity, taking into account that for sure more of the 90% of our whole life lectures have been in lowercase so our brain is better wired for catching these shapes.

enter image description here


More sources:

  • Quote from Wikipedia, with source from Legibility of Print by Tinker, Miles A. (1963). p. 65:

Miles Tinker, renowned for his landmark work, Legibility of Print, performed scientific studies on the legibility and readability of all-capital print. His findings were as follows:
All-capital print greatly retards speed of reading in comparison with lower-case type. Also, most readers judge all capitals to be less legible. Faster reading of the lower-case print is due to the characteristic word forms furnished by this type. This permits reading by word units, while all capitals tend to be read letter by letter. Furthermore, since all-capital printing takes at least one-third more space than lower case, more fixation pauses are required for reading the same amount of material. The use of all capitals should be dispensed with in every printing situation.[9]

Eye span refers to the radius around each point of fixation. An average eye-span radius extends about two inches around the point of fixation which loosely translates to about two and one-half words per fixation. Eye span is not an absolute measure, however. Readers' brains have the natural tendency to "chunk" or divide sentences into groups of words that express a cohesive idea according to the context of the sentence. For example, in the sentence "Christine kicked the ball," the two thought units are "Christine"–the person who acted–and "kicked the ball"–the action she performed. Configuration refers to the distinctive shape patterns that written words create. Lowercase letters have a more distinctive shape than capital letters, therefore they can be perceived more quickly than uppercase letters. Because readers are frequently exposed to a word, they no longer have to "read" the word, but instantly recognize the meaning by the familiar shape of the group of letters. A common example is a "STOP" sign. The configuration of letters composing words in a textual passage effect [sic] the recognition rate, or how quickly a person understands the words that he or she is reading. Often "familiarity" with the appearance of words–both the order of the letters and the typeface–effect [sic] the ease of reading. Naturally, distinctive patterns are more recognizable and memorable. Therefore, it is a widely held understanding that Roman or serif typefaces are more recognizable to readers. As a rule-of-thumb, serif typefaces are used to display body text (text set at 12-point or smaller). "Word recognition performance varies systematically as a function of where the eyes fixate in the word. Performance is maximal with the eye slightly left of the center of the work and decreases drastically to both sides of this optimal viewing position, or VPE" (Nazir, et al., 1998, p. 810).

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    Why is low 'contrast of shape' detrimental to readability? That article reads like pseudo-science rather than actual fact. Has any of that stuff been tested with anyone? – JonW Jan 27 '15 at 13:37
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    You're right. I've added more serious sources which explain further. – Alejandro Veltri Jan 27 '15 at 14:42
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    Ask any gamer and you will be told lower case is easier to read. I don't know why but I know reading the messages in real time lower case is faster. I have seen players kicked off for UPPER CASE. – paparazzo Jan 27 '15 at 14:55
  • The question I linked has an answer by Ben Brocka which seems to approximately debunk the "distinctive shape" theory. – AlexC Jan 27 '15 at 17:06
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    A lot of type research is pseudo science. But I think it has been shown that most of us don't read letter-by-letter, but rather word-by-word. As such, the more contrast between words, the easier to differentiate between them. – DA01 Jan 28 '15 at 20:16
8

There are two theories/explanations for why text in All Caps is harder to read. One says that it's because of the less unique word shapes, and the other says that it's because it's less common.

Small Caps suffers from both these problems - it has a generic word shape and it's even less common than All Caps.

So whichever of the "all caps" theories may be right, small caps should be less readable in either case.

  • 1
    "Small Caps suffers from both these problems - it has a generic word shape and it's even less common than All Caps." I digress. You see things written in all caps all the time, but they don't appear to be SHOUTING. That's because they more-or-less appear as Sᴍᴀʟʟ Cᴀᴘs relative to their sizing around other things. It's quite common in brand names and headlines, for example, and it's more readable because you don't feel like you're being shouted at. – Keavon Jan 27 '15 at 23:17
  • You may see them all the time, but it's still much less common than all caps. For the simple reason that it requires special attention to typography. Most people who have nothing to do with design aren't even aware that small caps exist. Furthermore, readability has a large unconscious element, it's determined before you've had the chance to process the text and think that you're being shouted at. Also, people who haven't spent a lot of time in chats, do not perceive all caps as shouting. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jan 28 '15 at 5:48
  • Um, word shapes, really? – Crissov Jan 29 '15 at 18:56
  • @Crissov Honest to god! – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jan 29 '15 at 19:16
5

enter image description here enter image description here

It was common knowledge that humans read words as a shape 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.

So it really doesn't matter if the letters are all caps or not. Not in the sence of recognition of words and as such has no effect on readability (provided that font weight and contrast is the same).

2

Small caps are the bastard child of lowercase and uppercase. Other than purely aesthetic "design" reasons, I've yet to see a good use case for small caps where full uppercase or mixed-case (uppercase first letter with lowercase thereafter) isn't a better choice.

You can get into the debate as to whether it's better to use uppercase or mixed-case, and I'm sure you can find a lot on that. The general rule that I follow, after reading way too much on the debate, is to use the following order of precedence for headings depending on how much emphasis I want:

  • ALL-CAPS
  • Mixed Caps with Every First Letter Capitalised (other than short connector words)
  • Mixed caps with prose like capitalisation (first letter or first letter of proper nouns)
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    I've seen one good use of small caps - Death's dialogue in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. It relays the idea of his voice being unusually resonant, but it's easier on the eyes that regular caps, and sufficiently different that you know it's "special voice" and not "this character always shouts". – anaximander Jan 27 '15 at 16:49
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    @anaximander I missed that. However I have a policy not to undertake any UX projects on behalf of Death... She never pays on time. – JohnGB Jan 27 '15 at 18:24
  • The ability to distinguish upper and lowercase letters can help parsing, and in some cases may be semantically required. In cases where space or technical constraints would preclude the use of descenders, small caps may make it possible to preserve the uppercase/lowercase distinction while being less ugly than descender-less gjpqy. This may work well in cases which use mostly allcaps but put use lowercase to disambiguate a few things [though interestingly in many such cases the lowercase letters in question would lack descenders]. – supercat Jan 27 '15 at 19:39
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    @JohnGB, Dᴇᴀᴛʜ ᴡɪʟʟ ʙᴇ Oɴ Tɪᴍᴇ™, ɢᴜᴀʀᴀɴᴛᴇᴇᴅ. – Brian S Jan 27 '15 at 20:09
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    @anaximander Some foreign publishers actually write Death in ALL CAPS, and I've been reading most of the stories like that. The first time I've read a bok where it was "only" small caps it was really weird, but - readability wise - more readable – SztupY Jan 28 '15 at 9:52
1

There is definitely qualitative and quantitative difference between upper case and lower case reading experience. This has to do with reading speed, familiarity, shape and eye movement. I myself am a fast reader (moderately: I've been clocked at bit over 1200 words per minute), so most of what's below is from experience.

Lower case is simply smaller, so I can take more words with a glance (again, I've been tested with capacity of reading 3-4 words at once, depending on their length). Basically, reading at any sensible speed requires reading more than one letter at once. Usually it is at least a word, but speed read record holders can read whole page at once.

Since I read a lot, also aloud, interpunction is important, and while not covered by name, upper case is part of it. Reading a lot also conditions brain to the accepted upper/lower case use.

So adding all that together you get all sorts of difficulties while using upper case. Small upper has the advantage of being, well... small, but that's about it.

Miles Tinker also mentions it:

Text in all capitals covers about 35 percent more printing surface than the same material set in lower case. This would tend to increase the reading time. When this is combined with the difficulty in reading words in all-capital letters as units, the hindrance to rapid reading becomes marked. In the eye-movement study by Tinker and Patterson, the principal difference in oculomotor patterns between lower case and all capitals was the very large increase in number of fixation pauses for reading the all-capital print.

If I remember correctly from an TV show of some kind on the development of Transport font for UK Motorways, during that development all kinds of fonts, variants and ways were tested and they came away with results that lower case was superior by a large margin. I think they specifically mentioned testing the smallcap variant as well, but it still was problematic.

Just FYI, I find reading ALL CAPS physically painful. No joke here. If I see on the internet something written in ALL CAPS I simply skip it (I mean here whole sentences, posts or messages). I'm not shy in using it when writing, but try to limit myself to as few ALL CAP words as possible.

0

Aside from the debate over speed or ease of reading or comprehension, the use of ALL CAPS can cause confusion. This is especially so in industries where use of acronyms is prevalent, such as Software Development and Telecommunications. An example is the Video sector where processes, projects, channel names, package names, site names, and acronyms are used in Development and Change Management: – Which words are names? – Which words are acronyms? - Did an someone use ALL CAPS for a client name that should be a specific mix of upper and lower case?

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