Just Your Type Columns / Typography

Just Your Type

Sarah Hyndman

Type is both functional and evocative. It displays words so efficiently that readers’ eyes can glide, seemingly effort­lessly, across the page as they read. However, the shapes and styles of typefaces communicate a great deal of information independent of the words they spell. When we read, we focus on what the words actually say, leaving typefaces to speak directly to our subconscious brain.

A font has the power to influence the meaning of a word, to give it a personality and a backstory that can impact a reader’s behavior. We’ve been learning to recognize this visual language all of our lives. Every time we see a font, we gather information from its context. Some of these associations are almost universally recognized, whereas others might be very personal and from our own life experiences.

It has long been known that we recognize typefaces as having personalities. When I ask people to describe a font as if it were a person, many go into a surprising amount of detail. My online survey, Font Census, randomly assigns participants an anonymous typeface and asks them to rate various aspects of its personality. Fonts acquire these personality types from the combination of their shapes and where we see them used. They become associated with the time periods when they were widely used. Also, the longer a typeface has been in existence, the more associations it has accumulated.

For example, serif typefaces have been used in print since the 1400s, when books were available only to scholars and the wealthy. As a result, traditional serif typefaces are associated with history, gravitas and knowledge.

By contrast, although sans serif typefaces first appeared in the 1800s, they have become popular in just the last 100 years (they were considered ugly at first because they were so different). Today, the prevalence of sans serifs on the Internet and as used by technology companies—like Apple’s typeface San Francisco—lend more current connotations to these fonts. Many, such as Helvetica, were designed to be neutral, modern and free from the associations, or baggage, of older type styles. After decades of popularity, do you think these cutting-edge values still hold true for sans serifs? Or have they started to gather outdated associations of their own?

A font creates a first impression. Much like the clothes we wear or a movie’s soundtrack, it gives us clues about how to react before we have even started to read the words. For example, I might want my readers to be aware they are reading something that is well researched. Alternatively, I might want them to feel they are reading something that is clear and easy to understand. This is “processing fluency,” and it applies to typeface choices as well as word choices. I’ve been exploring the impact of typeface personality on processing fluency, and in my online surveys and at live events, I ask participants, “Do readers respond differently to serif and sans serif typefaces?” When participants compare the same text written in a serif and in a sans serif, they rate the serif higher for skillful and knowledgeable content and the sans serif higher for making tasks seem easier to accomplish or understand.

Which wardrobe will be the easiest to build?
In an online survey, 303 participants were shown two sets of instructions for building a wardrobe. The instructions were identical, except for the typeface. One used a serif, and the other, a sans serif. Participants were asked which wardrobe they thought would be easier to build.

Which is the most in-depth and well-researched documentary?
A description of a docu­mentary appeared in two typefaces, and 146 participants were asked which they thought represented the most in-depth and well-researched documentary.

Which orchestra has the most skilled musicians?
In another online survey question, 146 participants were shown a description of an orchestra in two typefaces and asked which they thought would have the most skilled musicians.

Of course, choosing a good typeface is far more complex than just picking between a serif and a sans serif—it also depends on the tone you wish to set. My Type Tasting surveys ask readers to sample fonts and sometimes even eat them. The surveys reveal that, when given a choice, participants rate fonts with more thick/thin contrast as making the author or subject seem more skillful. The surveys also show that more knowledgeable content is associated with a smaller x-height and a medium-width font—not with extended or condensed variations.

Which is the most skilled or thoroughly researched?
For each of the following examples, participants were asked to compare the choices and rate which would be the most skilled team or the most thoroughly researched journalism.

Type Tasting surveys have given the graphic design community comprehensive information to use as hard evidence behind our typographic choices. It is extremely useful to have an under­standing of the personalities represented by different fonts, to know which suggest skill and which assure readers that a task isn’t so daunting. But do fonts really have the power to influence our experiences or alter our behavior?

To test whether typefaces influence our actions, I created an ongoing series of experiments that explore participants’ subconscious responses to typefaces. I give them a passage to read and ask them questions about it, such as, “How much skill will it take to cook this soup?” There is a second group going through the same process with a different font. The two groups are unaware of each other.

I research regular text fonts so that the results can inform our everyday decisions as designers. These have more subtle differences than the big, headline display typefaces. In the following experiments, the serif I have used is Bulmer, and the sans serif is Univers.

Can a typeface make soup appear easier to cook?
Participants were shown an identical recipe in either a sans serif or a serif typeface. Those who read the recipe in the sans serif typeface estimated it would require less skill to make.

Can a typeface make a cocktail recipe more appealing?
Participants saw an identical recipe in either a sans serif or a serif type­face. Those who read the recipe in the sans serif typeface believed the cocktail would be easier to make. However, participants with the serif recipe said they would be likelier to make the cocktail.

Can a typeface make a meal seem quicker to eat or a chef appear more skillful?
A restaurant description appeared in either a sans serif or a serif typeface. Those who read the description in the serif typeface expected that the chef would be more skilled, and those who read it in sans serif estimated the amount of time spent eating the meal would be less.

These results show that the fonts themselves influenced readers’ perceptions of what they were reading. If these figures were increases in profits or response rates, they would represent significant differences.

I’m not the only one coming to these conclusions: scientists have discovered that our brains can mistake the ease of the reading process for the ease of the subject we’re reading about. For example, psychologists at the University of Michigan found that college students thought an exercise routine would be easier and that they would be more likely to incorporate it into their daily routine when they were shown instructions in a highly legible typeface.

What’s more, a high school in Ohio found that students achieved higher exam results when they studied texts written in an unfamiliar font, according to neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis. He explains that this slowed their reading down and made them pay attention to the words instead of reading on autopilot.

Personally, I find it useful to change a document into an unfamiliar font, even one I don’t like, when I’m proofreading because it makes me read the words more carefully, and I become more aware of errors. (Just remember to change the font back afterward.)

In my experiments, I changed only the font and nothing else. The addition of color, texture, scale and design could affect the results dramatically. Typography and graphic design are powerful tools. When designers make careful choices, backed by artful intuition as well as hard research, we can communicate a message with great impact. ca

Sarah Hyndman (sarahhyndman.com) is a graphic designer and author. She has spoken at TEDx, SxSW and TYPO San Francisco, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4, and organized a mass participation sensory type experiment at the Science Museum, London. 


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