When you see a piece of A4 paper, where does your eye starting reading?

Let me confess from the start – it is a bit of a trick question, because the answer is not obvious.  In fact, you probably know that already because if the answer were obvious, I wouldn’t be bothering to write about it.

The most common answers to this question are that the eye would start…

  • At the top
  • At the top right
  • Where there is a picture
  • Where the text is large, or reversed or in some other way stands out.

In fact all are wrong (well I did warn you).

The truth is that for 99.999% of the population who are native readers of English (or any other language where the text moves across the page from left to right) the place that the eye goes initially is somewhere around 30% down the page from the top and in the middle (in terms of left/right). That is approximately 9.5cm (3.75 inches) from the top of the page and about 10.5cm in from the left margin (4 inches).

What happens then (and this has been shown to be the case in thousands of psychological experiments, mostly carried out on unsuspecting first year undergraduates in the subject where the psychology of perception is part of the coursework) is that the eye/brain seeks out something of interest to latch onto.

If there is a headline at this point and it is clearly in bigger text than the rest (say 20 point Arial bold) then that is what the eye fixes on, and that is what it reads. In fact the eye/brain can easily take in 15 words within a micro second and hold them, dissect the meaning and move on, and this gives the reader the clue as to what is going on.

In fact, with English text on a sheet of A4 the eye is much more likely to move over to the left and start reading (having fixed on some text 30% of the way down the page) than to move up the page and see what happens above.

If however there is nothing at this point to distinguish it from any other aspect of the page (for example, because by this moment we are part way through the text of a long article) the reader will either give up and throw the page away or will search around for a starting point.

Which alternative the reader chooses at this point depends on the reader and his/her perception of the item being looked at.

If, for example, this is a newspaper one has bought, then one will put in an extra effort and indeed probably start from the top, since one has invested money in the venture of having a daily paper.  If the item is a travel brochure that one has particularly requested then the reader might well persevere with the reading, no matter how the booklet is laid out, because of the reader’s high level of desire to read the document.

But what of pictures?

Pictures in a document can enhance the document or make it much less likely to be read. If the reader approaches the document with a high level of commitment, he/she will put in the extra effort needed to decode the pictures and understand them.  But if the reader has just picked up the document and has no real interest in it (for example, if it is an advert that has just come through the letter box) then if pictures and text jostle for position, the reader is most likely to turn off.

The reason is that pictures and text are dealt with by different halves of the brain. The left hemisphere deals with text and anything that can be broken down into a linear process, the right with pictures and anything that needs to be considered holistically.

So is a picture worth 10,000 words as was written in adverts in the 1930s? No, normally not. Which is why the adverts actually used words to say “a picture is worth 10,000 words” rather than a picture.

Pictures are great when you have got attention, but as a way of getting attention they are normally (but not always) less effective.

Of course, for ourselves we don’t mind whether you are storing text or pictures or even blank paper.  If you want it stored, we’ll store it…

For more details on our document storage solutions have a look at our website or give us a call on 0800 783 9516.

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