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How typeface influences the way we read and think

30 June 2013

From The Week:

The hunt for the Higgs boson was one of the most expensive and labor-intensive particle physics projects ever undertaken, and promised to answer the fundamental but elusive question of why our atoms stick together in the first place. And yet, when CERN researchers finally announced that they’d glimpsed the Higgs, the world’s first reaction wasn’t to cheer; it was to stifle collective laughter. The institution’s scientists, cradling the most important scientific discovery of the decade, had chosen to present their findings to a breathless public using a peculiar font face: Comic Sans MS.

. . . .

The whole kerfuffle underscored just how important typefaces are to the way we process information. Words hold power. But the aesthetic manner in which those words are presented can affect the way we read, and the way we think about the information presented.

“Typography is one ingredient in a pretty complicated presentation,” Cyrus Highsmith, a typeface designer and author of the book Inside Paragraphs, told me over the phone. “Typography is the detail and the presentation of a story. It represents the voice of an atmosphere, or historical setting of some kind. It can do a lot of things.”

. . . .

When readers came to the site, the story was presented in different typefaces: Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans, and Trebuchet. Roughly 40,000 people responded to the quiz, and the results were weighted to evaluate which fonts inspired more confidence in the research, and which fonts made the information appear less believable.Here’s what Morris found:

The conscious awareness of Comic Sans promotes — at least among some people — contempt and summary dismissal. But is there a typeface that promotes, engenders a belief that a sentence is true? Or at least nudges us in that direction? And indeed there is.

It is Baskerville.

Believe it or not, the results of this test even show a disparity between Baskerville and Georgia — two apparently similar serif typefaces.

Baskerville’s weighted advantage wasn’t huge — just 1.5 percent. “That advantage may seem small,” Dunning told the Times, “but if that was a bump up in sales figures, many online companies would kill for it. The fact that font matters at all is a wonderment.”

Link to the rest at The Week and thanks to James for the tip.

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22 Comments to “How typeface influences the way we read and think”

  1. And the rest of the people who mock Comic Sans have no conception of typography and do it because they think they’re supposed to. I have no respect for those people.

    I started my work career as a typesetter in the largest typehouse on the east coast. I happened to like Comic Sans when it first came out and still use it in one-page flyers for work and condo association events. It’s a fun little typeface that should be used for fun social events.

    For my trade paperback, however, I went with a good, solid typeface: Adobe Garamond. It took forever to find the right fonts for the running headers. I told my cover designer what I was looking for, and picked from a variety she sent me. I think the overall look works quite well.

    And I’m so thankful I won’t have to choose new fonts for the next book. One of the advantages of writing a series. :-)

    • What did you finally choose for the headers? As someone about to throw myself into self pubbing, I’m not above stealing good ideas from more knowledgable people.

      • Kat, can you email me? I have to go pull up the InDesign file for the name… it’s been a while. And I’m not sure if you’re asking just for the chapter headers or also the cover titles. My first name at my last name dot com.

      • I don’t think Comic Sans is so bad, either. But, for some reason, it seems to be a bete noire for graphic designers. I’ve seen it used on covers that I thought were well done and effective. Not good for book interiors, though.

        I stick with 4 fonts for book interiors:

        o HOBO STD for chapter titles
        o ADOBE GOTHIC STD B for section titles
        o GEORGIA for text
        o ARIEL ROUNDED MT BOLD for special text (seldom used)

      • Well, no email, so Font Error is what I used for the chapter headers, drop caps, running heads and TOC.

        • Sorry, Meryl, and thank you for responding. Serious family emergency came up that’s suddenly consuming virtually all my mental resouces and time and I didn’t get the chance to email. Again, thank you.

    • Comic Sans and Papyrus are unfairly maligned. Yes, they’ve been overused and improperly used, but that’s hardly the fault of the typeface.

      I use Comic Sans a lot for for school worksheets for grades 5 to 7. The kids like it and it’s easier to read for dyslexic kids than many other typefaces.

  2. This study makes a lot of sense. Before I started writing seriously, I was an old-time graphic designer and font geek. [And I'm still a bit of a font geek.] Every font, even Comic Sans (which I have used on occasion when it fit the material) has its purposes and sets its mood. The ideal font choice should actually disappear and not get in the way of the reading. Like Meryl (we ought to get together and talk!), I use Garamond for my books. I like the readability.

    • I wasn’t a font geek, Laurie, and the part of my job that I hated the most was matching type. But I worked for many years in publishing as a typesetter, desktop publisher, copy editor, and (going way back) paste-up artist. I learned my trade on AM Varityper and other early machines. The ones where you had to change a cartridge if you wanted to switch from Times Roman to Times Roman Italic.

      And I still have my Atex manual. I can still typeset on an Atex system. But it would take me a while to get up to speed.

      SGML, the language of Atex typesetting, is the grandaddy of HTML. All I did was move laterally a bit when I went into web publishing.

      • I worked on Atex and Compugraphic, Meryl, and when I was I took my first HTML class, boy, was I a happy duck. :D The instructor put up a slide full of HTML and smugly asked the class, “Bet you’ve never seen this before!” Ha!

        • I wish I’d realized it a few years earlier. A programmer friend of mine kept urging me to try HTML. When I did go into it, yeah, it was easy. CSS, on the other hand….

          And when you leave typesetting to computer programmers, you get things like changing [i] for italics to [em] for emphasis. Why? Why? WHY? What the bloody hell was WRONG with using the first letters of the words you wanted to program?

          Same thing for bold and strong. Sigh.

  3. What ruined Comic Sans (and other fonts before and after it) was popularity during the time when desktop publishing was coming into its own. System fonts were few and mostly looked the same to untrained desktop publishers, hence Comic Sans–something NEW!–everywhere we looked for years. Ten years later, the rapidly-growing number of websites did the same disservice to Papyrus. It’s lovely, and virtually everyone hates it, like a popular song the radio will NOT stop playing.

  4. The delight over Comic Sans instead of discussing the Higgs Boson also points out how unserious the human race really is. Why else would we care about the doings of people who produce nothing but chatter?

  5. Bembo is my favorite, but when push came to shove, I knuckled under and chose Garamond. Can’t lose.

    Maybe I’ll check out Baskerville.

  6. I’ll back Robert Slimbach’s type designs against the field. Minion and Myriad have been done to death, but I have grown very fond of Arno Pro for body text. The optical sizes are terrifically well done. Also, I have my own reasons for liking a typeface that includes the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets in a compatible style. Brioso is lovely, but just a bit too fey for production work. I often wish I could get away with using it as a text face, though.

    One of Slimbach’s latest products, Trajan Sans, seems to me to work very well as a display face to go with Arno. I’ve grown fond of it in a hurry.

    As for Comic Sans, I find that the idea is good but the execution is lacking. There are many better designs to fill that niche.

  7. Goodness. I can’t tell the difference between Times and Ariel. Color me abit impressed at this expertise.

  8. McSweeney’s has an excellent essay on the defense of Comic Sans.

    It contains off-color language, so if you are easily offended, you should refrain, but the essay is hysterically funny and spot-on.

    “Listen up. I know the [stuff] you’ve been saying behind my back. You think I’m stupid. You think I’m immature. You think I’m a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I’m Comic Sans, and I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes [fracking] Gutenberg.”

    And it gets funnier from there.

    I “bit.ly’d” the link because even the link has a posterior anatomical reference.

    http://bit.ly/ioivm6

    TK Kenyon

  9. What about e-ink and typography? There are a number of good fonts that just don’t work well on e-ink devices. Anything with thin lines (serifs especially). Baskerville is a great typeface, but it’s awful on e-ink. Also, PS Type 1 fonts all look like crap on devices that use the FreeType renderer (which is all e-ink devices, AFAIK). Although that may change since Adobe recently contributed their font rasterizer to the Freetype project.

    There’s a reason that Amazon chose Caecilia as the default font for their e-ink devices. Slab serifs work really well on e-ink. Does anyone have any favorites for e-ink or know of anyone who has tested fonts on e-ink?

    • William, I think this is why you see so much use of sans-serif on websites or at least serifs with substance. Those delicate little flowers just look like mistakes on e-readers and websites.

  10. Goudy Old Style lover checking in. I would use it for print text, and one of the sans-serif fonts it’s traditionally paired with (Gill Sans), but for e-ink I would go with the defaults, too. They are default for a reason.

    Also a lover of Papyrus. It has its place.

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