# Font Size and Behavior

Hi Zettlers,

I recently reduced the font size in The Archive because I needed to windows next to each other to assemble a Q&A (on selfdevelopment). Normally, I use pretty big letters (Menlo, 24pt). Now I am down to 18pt. I experienced a shift in my preference on how to structure my big notes. I use way more subtitles. I lean more towards a less formal outline and mix more elements together (TOC-like modules with comments and more).

What is your reasoning behind the font size of your Zettelkasten software?

Live long and prosper
Sascha

I am a Zettler

• Hmm ... FWIW, I decrease font size in my programming apps when I'm using the smaller screen of my MacBook so I can get a better overview of things. Getting lost in the thick of only 1 function per page on screen, but with large letters, often doesn't help. I notice this pretty quickly because when I fit 2 windows side by side, long lines wrap really hard and that gets annoying.

For composing text in Emacs, I usually increase the font size twice; each applies a scale of 1.2x, so I get from 18 to ~26pt. (Same for proof-reading, most of the time.)

In The Archive I hover around 20--22pt, with the larger font on big display. Similar reasoning like when I'm programming. I sometimes just notice when I write that apparently nothing fits on screen to re-read what I just typed, and then I decrease the font. But 18pt makes me sad Have to try that out.

That proposes an interesting challenge to optimize fonts.

The Information Architects, Inc. made a good point back in the day with their responsive font sizes: Show the window in full screen, that's composer mode with large letters at about arm's length away. On handheld devices, you can use smaller fonts because the devices are closer. (Imagine taking a photo of the scene from your eye's view, which creates a 2D image, then measure the text on the picture with a ruler; it's supposed to be pretty close.) When you shrink the window, the font gets smaller, taking you from distraction-free focus mode to a mode that's better for editing, where you need overview to compare stuff, etc.

A problem of prescribing foxed font sizes is the difference in hardware. The factor there is pixels per inch (PPI). Full-HD/1080p resolution on a 24" monitor vs a 20" monitor renders 18pt text at different 'physical' size, i.e. the height you can measure with a ruler held to your screen.

So I think any theory of optimal font size needs to factor in

• the ppi of the device (I don't know if that's information software can get from the OS, to be honest),
• the distance of from eyeballs to screen (the combination of this and the ppi would be enough to calculate the perceived size of text at X pt font height);
• harder to measure physical capabilities and shortcomings of the eyes, short-sightedness, and such things, maybe even taste;
• the current mode of work, or objective (composition, editing, need to focus or need to compare, ...)

If one is scientifically inclined, one also needs to measure this in a proper study. The mix of variables sounds odd to me, but maybe smart scientists could figure this out for the sake of work ergonomics.

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• Here are some miscellaneous ideas.

• I find the somewhat fuzzy concept of "information capacity of a visible unit" useful. Basically, the "capacity" could be measured in number of lines or number of words, and the "visible unit" is the part you can actually see on your work canvas, digital or paper or otherwise. A statement like "I have 20 visible lines in my canvas" avoids technicalities about font size, screen resolution and zoom factors.
• Another related concept is of course that of visibility of information. For me, striking examples of "high visibility" are integrated development environments with their smallish windows for stacks, variables, breakpoints and parts of the code. I still think this is a very powerful metaphor that can be exploited for "tools for thought".
• Depending on your style of note-making, there can be a lot of unused space in one line, or on the working canvas in general - which could be one of the reasons why the use of columns is so common.
• I suspect there is an interplay between focus and information capacity - how often do you have to change between visible units to find the information you are looking for? How often do you have to start a new document? Are there benefits from being forced to use a new unit of information for your notes? (That is one of the key ideas behind the 4x4 layout of notes described somewhere else in this forum.) What is the impact of having a smaller or larger amount of information in front of you? Is it possible to make any meaningful statements about an "optimal" capacity? What are the "costs" of accessing information that is currently no visible - do you have to scroll, open a new document, get an older notebook from your shelf?
• I think a quantitative look through history could be interesting - what was the effective information capacity for Leonardo da Vinci working on his sheets? What was Luhmann's situation when he had a number of zettels in front of him? How does Andy Matuschak work on his Evergreen Notes?
• I remember some examples how thinkers have dealt with information capacity and visibility - Umberto Eco sitting amidst his typewritten sheets while writing The Name of the Rose, Cedric Villani preparing a math paper, Sal Khan mentioning "real estate issues" in his early videos, Bill Gates using four quadrants in his working notes. The densely packed notes of Leibniz or Newton may have something to do with the scarcity of writing paper in their times - on the other hand, there might be a relation to the scope and depth of their output.
• @sfast said:
What is your reasoning behind the font size of your Zettelkasten software?

I use Ubuntu-Mono Regular 16.0 pt. and a 27" 1080p monitor attached to my MacBook Pro.
I have vision issues so I use the built-in Accessibility functions a lot. ⌘- to reduce the font size and ⇧⌘+ to increase font size. I move up and down frequently. Smaller when making screenshots for forum posts and bigger fonts when reading.

I struggled with the UID of zettel being prepended to the title. So much of the screen real-estate was take up by the UID I couldn't read the title in the enlarged font I needed to read the screen. Especially in the two window workflow mode using the laptop 13" monitor. I've partially solved this by moving the UID to be post-pended to the zettel file name. I say partially as this move has brought up a few other problems.

Line Height (1.6) is a setting I find very helpful in reading and writing but adjusting the line height is not available in all applications.

@thomasteepe said:
I suspect there is an interplay between focus and information capacity ...

• How often do you have to change between visible units to find the information you are looking for? How often do you have to start a new document?
• Are there benefits from being forced to use a new unit of information for your notes? (That is one of the key ideas behind the 4x4 layout of notes described somewhere else in this forum.)
• What is the impact of having a smaller or larger amount of information in front of you?
• Is it possible to make any meaningful statements about an "optimal" capacity?
• What are the "costs" of accessing information that is currently no visible - do you have to scroll, open a new document, get an older notebook from your shelf?

Great questions! I hadn't considered that my focus would flux around the information density of the material studied or read. But I now see the point. If I'm looking for information, and the textual density is high, and the information is compact it would take more focus to find and absorb the information sought. This points to the value of white space in a our documents/notes/zettel. Also, the automaticity of note-making chunks the information into bite-size portions as long as each note is linked heavily things are okay.

A quick look in my archive and I find a few relevant notes. I found so many "hits" I'm off to start a note thread on the cost/benifits of the density of information. Thanks @sfast and @thomasteepe Here are some snippets from a few notes.

• Note refactoring compresses the information. This can be accomplished all at once or progressively over time by revisiting and refactoring a little at a time.

“Knowledge visualization“ is distinguished from “information visualization”. The latter usually deals with visually presenting typically large amounts of preexisting structured data (often stored in databases).
Heiko Haller and Andreas Abecker (2009): Requirements for Diagrammatic Knowledge Mapping Techniques

• From the same paper

Personal knowledge management. Especially in knowledge-intensive tasks it becomes crucial to unburden our limited working memory [Miller 1956]. This can be done through the use of cognitive tools [Lajoie 1993] and by shifting work-load to highly automated cognitive processes such as our sense of spatial orientation, because these automated processes do not hinder conscious ones [Shiffrin & Schneider 1977]. [^1]

• Walking: A Study In Creativity [[202104240921]]

Ease the cognitive workload through various means. Focus here on the visual representation of the knowledge. Other Ways to ease the cognitive workload are:
1. scheduling in advance time to work
2. creating a distraction free environment
3. making deep work a habit
4. note taking

• What is important to pay attention too? This is not an easy question in the face of the consequences of a wandering attention. Think of driving and the phone and radio.
• Look for ways like poetry, meditation, and writing to use as attempts to 'bulwark' my attention against the distractions of the world. [[202011281647]]
• Poetry Is The Science Of The Real [[202105201745]]

Mary Oliver’s Poetry Captures Our Relationship With Technology - The Atlantic

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @thomasteepe's "Information capacity of a visible unit" questions rather a two window work flow helps or hinders idea assimilation?

With The Archive the fact of essentially 4 windows (2 note lists and 2 editor windows) clutters the visual field. This makes interaction with the idea of focus harder. Maybe only marginally but marginal distractions stand between 97% and 100% attention.

Does anyone know of about any research in this area? Ideas are not data but ideas can be supported and extracted from data. How does data density effect this? Can data density be abstracted to words on a page? This must have been studied long ago as books are nominally the same size. We don't have most of our books printed 12pt. on A1 or A2 paper. If it was easier to grasp ideas with text density of this amount you'd think we'd be there.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• Ah, dang. I didn't publish my reply.

@thomasteepe

• information capacity of a visible unit is an excelent concept. Thank you.
• I don't understand exactly what you mean by visibility of information. Could you explain further?

I am a Zettler

• @sfast
re: visibility of information

I think it's interesting to ask what kind and what amount of information is accessible with (almost) one glance - the text you are currently writing, one (or more) previous notes, reference material, perhaps a collection of thinking tools... Here, as with other "cognitive support systems", people seem to have experimented and worked with all sorts of variations over the centuries - "reductionist" approaches like Zen writing modes, with a deliberately narrow focus, and "integrationist" approaches that aim to supply broad access to various sources, like Integrated Development Environments.
(Note: The "bookwheel" seems to be a charming invention in this spirit - here's a picture from the wikipedia.)

• Ah, ok. Did I understand you correcty if I'd say:

The information capacity of my iA Writer window is 2400 characters but the visibility of information is narrowed to one sentence by the focus mind. The total information capacity would be much higher if I'd use my screen. But it is reduced by choice by limiting the length of each line to 80 characters. There is a lot of empty and unused spaces left and right in the margins.

I am a Zettler

• In my initial comment I mentioned

the somewhat fuzzy concept of "information capacity of a visible unit".

Owing to this fuzziness, I am in no position to assess properly if your understanding is correct - dear me.

A distinction between a) a potential information capacity and b) the actual visible amount of information was not something I had in mind when writing the above comment, but it seems plausible.

Deliberately reducing the amount of visible information I'm currently interacting with is a practice I have almost no experience with. I like to exhaust the available canvas area to almost the last square millimetre. That's why I'm so obsessive about layouts, columns and boxes.

One reason for this "exhaustive mode" lies in some peculiar experiments with "writing for insights" - they rely heavily on layouts and on the availability of several places on the canvas where I can put ideas.
Here are some examples:

• I can use one column for my primary ideas and another for secondary reflective remarks.
• I can use entire sheets for idea generation, where I like to jump between boxes that contain different stimuli that should resonate with my topic.
• I can use a larger number of small boxes (like 16 on an A4 sheet), where each filled box triggers a moment of re-orientation and reflection.

A second reason are experiences from my job, where I find it very helpful to have my entire notes from a long meeting in one large OneNote page with a column layout.

• I think I need to simmer this issue a bit on my inner plates.

There seem to be similar aspects to the question: What belongs on my desk (or computer desktop)?

Christian, for example, insists on not having a clock shown. I insist on having a clock. To me, the clock is a tool that I use for forward thinking and planning. I work in short time-bound ballistic (no control during the fly) efforts. Christian, works more with just one gear and lets himself be suprised by the next appointment. (correct me, if I am wrong)

There are different modes that are both individual and normativ (quite often one should change oneself instead of adapting the tools to ones momentary needs).

I am thinking of some experiments that we could conduct as a community with different types of problems and tools for solutions. (But first the online course and the book, though..)

I have an older note that I started but never finished (the "qqq" is my general bookmark) (this is directly copied and pasted):

# 201907111142 Ü2 Problemlösung Methode HowTo Rezept

## Begriffe

Hack
HowTo
Kalkül
Methode
Plan
Prinzip
Rezept
Strategie
System
Taktik
Technik
Trick
Verfahren
Vorgehensweise
Werkzeug

Dann gibt

1. Genaue Abfolge von Schritten, die wir auswendig lernen können.
2. Eine Technik, die Erfolg wahrscheinlich macht, aber Übung erfordert.
3. Methoden, Strategien und so weiter, die eine Herangehensweise auf mentaler Ebene modifiziert.

Das könnten alles Begriffe sein, die das Ergebnis eines Denkens über Probleme sind.

I use this thinking-tool (perhaps we should indeed work on a community-driven toolbox..): I collect synonyms on an entity I don't understand as well as I want to. Then I filter, define, connect, create boundaries etc. After that, it is time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Then I distinguish the broader concepts from its constituents and their relationships. This helps me to focus on what is the actual phenomenon instead of falling into the prescriptive trap of concepts. (actual phenomena are observed patterns. In this case, my own meta-patterns that I observe on this field of words and what people actually do or what empirical science can observe (e.g. what the brain does during the behavior))

In psychology (in other sciences, too of course) a similar process would be a multivariate factor analysis.

I will apply this method to the issue of "Arbeitsoberfläche" (English: work surface) which gives me room to think more independent of concepts Zettelkasten, screens or desks. (First, simmer. Then analysis, then simmer again. Then I have something that I can present)

I am a Zettler

• Asking how to design a work surface / a work environment and possibly "ZK work sessions" that work for oneself (like how to begin a session / how to organize the main part / how to wrap up a session) - all this seems very promising to me, and fairly complex.
I understand that there might be reasons for using markup language to store notes, but using markup language in the stage of idea creation appears to me as opting for a form of work that I find highly limiting and restrictive (and which I use myself fairly often, due to the comfort of staying in one medium).
So questions about optimal work environments could directly lead outside the immediate ZK framework and into the framework of integrating several different canvas types.

• Oh, I use all mediums available to idea creation (which I use here as an umbrella term for both creation and molding/crafting/editing/alteration).

Examples of the last days on paper:

## Using a direction-alteration to tweak definitions

The resulting tool is an improvement on my ability to describe exercises more acurately and actually seeing the exercise I want to employ for the workout.

## Using completness tests to draw boundaries

The resulting tool helps me to design a base workout curriculum for healthy biomechanics, develops an improved self-assessement tool and provides a story why some combinations of movement sub-practices produce more health. (oh, and a tool to gauge the necessary health program for athletes)

I think (never did scientific testing, just party tricks; sort of can feel numbers in my mouth; some strange dream-like intuition for geometric forms etc.) I have something akin to syntesthesia (most of the time I short-cut the lengthy description and just say syntasthesia). So, I do something in my head that feels strange which I wouldn't describe as thinking but more as observing what I observe if I throw something in a melting pot. Then I sit for an hour or two and observe what happens and most of the time something something useful is the result.

But I personally, for example, don't mind the markup. Often I like it.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast:
... that was beautiful and insightful.

• @thomasteepe said:
@sfast:
... that was beautiful and insightful.

Don't make me blush.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast said:
Don't make me blush.

No need for modesty. Your comments are sharp, smart, and they strike a chord with me. I can only aspire to be so clear in working with my knowledge project.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @thomasteepe said:
Asking how to design a work surface / a work environment and possibly "ZK work sessions" that work for oneself (like how to begin a session / how to organize the main part / how to wrap up a session) - all this seems very promising to me, and fairly complex.

This forum thread outlines how I try to work creatively in a "ZK work session".
Two papers I recently processed on this topic are:

1. Kirsh, David. “The Intelligent Use of Space.” Artificial Intelligence, vol. 73, no. 1, 1995, pp. 31–68, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/0004-3702(94)00017-U.
2. Newman, James R. “MATHEMATICAL CREATION.” Scientific American, vol. 179, no. 2, 1948, pp. 54–57., www.jstor.org/stable/24945870. Accessed 19 June 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24945870

I understand that there might be reasons for using markup language to store notes, but using markup language in the stage of idea creation appears to me as opting for a form of work that I find highly limiting and restrictive (and which I use myself fairly often, due to the comfort of staying in one medium).

During the initial phase of onboarding notes, I don't care about any formating. I just let the text flow, making down any attempts at steering my attention. Sometimes even emulating ee cummings and forgetting to punctuate. Markdown editors stay out of the creative process till I call on them in phase two or three after the creative fire dwindles.

I favor Markdown editors for writing and insist that a clock be present when working on a screen.

So questions about optimal work environments could directly lead outside the immediate ZK framework and into the framework of integrating several different canvas types.

My favored canvas type is de-cluttered, non-distracting, and minimalist.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• edited June 2021

@sfast said:
I think (never did scientific testing, just party tricks; sort of can feel numbers in my mouth; some strange dream-like intuition for geometric forms, etc.) I have something akin to synesthesia (most of the time, I short-cut the lengthy description and say synesthesia). So, I do something in my head that feels strange, which I wouldn't describe as thinking but more as observing what I observe if I throw something in a melting pot. Then I sit for an hour or two and observe what happens, and most of the time, something useful is the result.

The mathematician Henri Poincaré, in 1904, refers to this phase of creativity in his paper "An Essay on Mathematical Creation" as the time for letting the unconscious work on the problem. He provides some convincing examples but doesn't quite come out and say explicitly that he "sort of can feel the numbers in his mouth." Adding an hour or two or even a bit more time, like overnight, can surface the answer to a problem.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @Will - thank you so much for linking to the brainpickings article.
It mentions the following:

STEP 2: DIGESTING THE MATERIAL

In his second stage of the creative process, digesting the material, Young affirms Paola Antonelli’s brilliant metaphor of the curious octopus:

"What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle."

This resonated with me.

• With advice like this, one of my first questions is "How can you do this on a digital or a paper canvas? What are useful layout options?" My personal favourite practice is the 4 x 4 mind map solution shown here - on a single A4 sheet I can have a first look at 16 possible combinations, and then focus on the most promising ones. (With the extra twist that some of the micro mind maps themselves have an octopussian quality.)
• "You bring two facts together and see how they fit" - I wonder if reasonable things can be said about how to chose the two facts. Trusting your gut feeling is arguably a good start, but in yet another attempt to provide a more "mechanical" fallback option, I've compiled a list of stimuli that can be applied to a broad range of topics, like "timelines", "cycles", "extremes" or "partitions" - in many cases, a concept "reacts" when these stimuli are added. - This use of general "principles" is to some extent inspired by the TRIZ method.
• My little remark about the limiting nature of markdown language was poorly phrased. In fact, I'm highly skeptical of any typing for idea creation - having no fluent use of symbols and diagrams and mindmappish arrangements simply doesn't work well for me.

Next, the article mentions

STEP 3: UNCONSCIOUS PROCESSING
STEP 4: THE A-HA MOMENT

I suspect that for every famous story about some a-ha moment under the shower or while shaving or while waking up, you could find two other less well famous stories where people have relevant insights while sitting at their desk working - while unconscious processes may still play a crucial role.

One final remark.

Rodin's model was a pugilist and not a philosopher in the narrow sense. To represent the quintessential thinker without any mind extensions seems a bit misleading.
Here is a better option:

(Source)

• Young's description of the mental processes "for a productive creative process" resonated with me too. The drivers for this process are, more than anything, slowing down and focusing attention on the material and relationships.

"What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle."

@sfast said something very similar, and this too resonates.

I think (never did scientific testing, just party tricks; sort of can feel numbers in my mouth; some strange dream-like intuition for geometric forms, etc.) I have something akin to synesthesia (I shortcut the lengthy description and say synesthesia). So, I do something in my head that feels strange, which I wouldn't describe as thinking but observing what I observe if I throw something in a melting pot. Then I sit for an hour or two and observe what happens, and most of the time, something useful is the result.

Tools for thought can support 'digestion of material' and, @thomasteepe, your 4 x 4 mind map solution looks well developed for this.

My so-called tool for thought is less well-formed, more nebulous, fuzzier, and difficult to vocalize. This I see as my own failing. I don't have the vocabulary sufficient to clarify. These two authors do a much better job. My contribution, "The Two Window Workflow" is not as refined as yours and is digitally based, not tactile.

I love your reference to the "octopussian quality" of your process. I've added this phrase to my note Metaphors for Tools for Thought.

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com