Words possess an extraordinary amount of power and the ones we choose can have a major impact on response and results. Just as important, yet in a more subtle and subliminal way, are typefaces, because they determine how people perceive and process the information presented. It’s more than a matter of aesthetics, as shown by a number of scientific experiments that proved how typefaces can affect the way people read, comprehend, and view information. TheWeek.com featured details and data on why typefaces make a case for style over substance.
“Typography is the detail and the presentation of a story,” said Cyrus Highsmith, a typeface designer and author of the book, Inside Paragraphs: Typographic Fundamentals. “It represents the voice of an atmosphere, or historical setting of some kind. It can do a lot of things.
In a recent experiment, The New York Times presented an article in two parts to its online readers. The first part was a typical article about a scientific study comparing optimism to pessimism. For the second part, the publication collaborated with Cornell psychologist David Dunning to design a quiz that examined whether the online readers believed the conclusions of the study.
While the experiment sounded straightforward, a closer look revealed that the article was presented in a number of different typefaces including Baskerville, Comic Sans, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica and Trebuchet. The true purpose of the experiment was to determine which fonts inspired confidence in the results of the research, as well as which fonts weakened the credibility of the study.
According to the 40,000 readers who took the quiz, Baskerville generated the greatest amount of trust, yet the strikingly similar Georgia typeface didn’t spark as positive a reaction. Comic Sans caused many to disregard the results and even sparked a sense of contempt in some readers.
“Typography is one ingredient in a pretty complicated presentation,” Mr. Highsmith said.
Baskerville has long been favored by typographers because it clearly conveys information without distracting the reader with showy strokes, designs, or heights. Its simple style allows readers to unconsciously absorb the information presented.
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After all, there are many elements involved in typeface design that people don’t consciously realize. Online, it’s generally understood that serif fonts like Times New Roman both influence and ease the flow of reading. In print, it’s much more complicated because some shapes of serifs can actually lessen readability if they’re too prominent. Plus, there many sans serif typefaces that are very readable in the real world.
According to Alexander Tochilovsky, a design instructor at Cooper Union in New York, it’s important to go beyond the structure of the individual letters and to look at factors like the size of type, the spacing of the letters and words, leading, justification and column width. He explained that all of these play a major role in the readability of text. The purpose and context also matter because text for a poster calls for much different typesetting than text for a book.
Another experiment demonstrated how font can significantly affect our level of success. In 2006, university student Phil Renaud wrote 52 essays over the course of six semesters. Interestingly, his average essay scores began rising toward the end of his final semester. He hadn’t increased the amount of time or effort he put into his writing, but he had changed the font for his essays and found that his later papers in the Georgia font earned higher grades than his earlier essays in the Times New Roman and Trebuchet MS fonts.
Mr. Renaud concluded that Times New Roman was the norm so it didn’t stand out in any positive or negative way, but Georgia was similar enough to Times to maintain its academic sense, yet different enough to be fresh and interesting to a weary professor. He added that Trebuchet triggered a negative reaction, which he attributed to the fact that the font was not as easy to read in print or possibly appeared less polished.
These findings reflected a 1998 study from Carnegie Mellon that compared Times New Roman to Georgia. It revealed that respondents strongly favored Georgia because it was easier to read and more aesthetically pleasing.
Readability and aesthetics, or the lack of them, also seem to be the reasons why so many people dislike the Comic Sans MS font. Its scribbled style makes it unpleasant to read and often triggers a negative reaction to its content.
While there isn’t one font that fits all, there are certain factors that can determine which fonts will work best for different situations. Consider the medium being used, as well as the preference of the audience, and the overall purpose of the words. Remember, there is often much more to fonts than meets the eye.
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