Blog post FONT CHOICE-01-01

What Your Font Choice Is Saying About You

Type is everywhere, including right in front of you. We see it all the time, and you may think you don’t pay attention to it. All words look the same right? Wrong. The fonts we see, in signage, presentations, packaging, texts, influence us in subtle ways.

Take Elon Musk‘s ‘fifth mode’ of transportation, the Hyperloop, an alternative to boats, planes, automobiles and trains. According to Musk (founder of Paypal and Tesla, the electric car company), you would be able to travel from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes, or 343 miles at more than 685 mph by Hyperloop. That’s more than twice as fast as the world’s fastest train.

To date Musk has only talked about the idea. But it’s been graphically immortalized by ‘Tinker’ John Gardi. Unfortunately he used Comic Sans.

779561795-#HyperLoop Rendered by 'Tinker' John Gardi

It’s very informative. Indeed Musk has confirmed it as a close representation of his original idea. One small problem, it doesn’t look believable. That’s because of John’s font choice, Comic Sans.

Here’s the same diagram re-rendered by Brent Couchman, an independent designer and illustrator. Brent used Proxima Nova & Kulturista.

Hyperloop_V1.1_JohnGardi_2

Most people will look at the second diagram and feel more inclined to believe it than the first, simply because of the font choice.  Both typeface — the form of the letters you see, and typography — the format of the letters on a page, have a profound influence on the meaning you extract from the written word. It’s the visual language that adds depth and character to written language, in the same way tone, dialect and emphasis add that to the spoken word. Shakespeare recited by Patrick Stewart sounds a lot different to Shakespeare recited by Paddington Bear.

In a study conducted by Cornell psychologist David Dunning and New York Times writer Errol Morris, readers were asked whether they found various pieces of text believable. The differences in the texts? Only the typeface. The same text was presented in Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica and Comic Sans.  Here are the results in a nutshell.

The Truthiness of Fonts

The Truthiness of Fonts

Fonts like Baskerville and Georgia had a higher truthiness than poor Comic Sans, perhaps validating the work of Matt Dempsey at Comic Sans Criminal and aggravating the good people at Comic Sans Project.

The bottom line, if you want to be believed, pay careful attention to the font choice.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

More at Google+Facebook and Pinterest. Comments are welcome, links are appreciated. If you’re interested in writing guest posts for this blog, please contact me.

70 Comments

  1. Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) | August 7, 2013 at 11:43 am

    If what you seek in a presentation is “starchiness” and “gravitas,” an old-style font like Baskerville might be just the persuasive tool for the job. But if you are trying for something else, a clean and simple sans serif typeface, or even a playful and informal one, might better suit. Comic Sans, besides its obvious and intended use in dialogue balloons or to suggest marker on a flipchart, conveys a tentativeness, a provisional character that might not push strong agreement, but also does not announce finality. For labeling a rough sketch or early mockup, Comic Sans or one of the other hand-drawn typefaces (I like Kristen ITC or Bradley Hand, myself) are better at making clear to clients that the content is not cast in stone.

    The real point is that typography, like clothes, needs to fit the message and occasion.

    As to Comic Sans, the results of the Errol Morris “study” are contaminated by the fact that contempt for Comic Sans has been so loudly and widely trumpeted by designers and bloggers. Everyone “knows” that it’s bad and that anyone who uses it is not to be trusted, just like everyone now “knows” that Helvetica is boring and so “yesterday.”

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

    • Andron Ocean | August 8, 2013 at 11:44 pm

      “The real point is that typography, like clothes, needs to fit the message and occasion.”

      Yes, yes! This is very similar to what I say myself. My favored analogy is in terms of vehicles: you wouldn’t show up to a formal, white-tie reception in a beat-up, garishly painted old VW bus, unless you were trying to make a highly unconventional statement. And unconventional statements have consequences, one of which is that there’s a good chance people won’t take you seriously.

      I’m by no means a typography geek, and I neither hate nor love Comic Sans. It has its place in situations where seriousness or conviction aren’t needed. I do think it is grossly overused, however.The Hyperloop illustration is a great example. Personally, I know that if I arrive at a regular, informational website set in Comic Sans, I find it very off-putting, and am less likely to read it. And I am almost certainly not going to cite or link to it without excellent reason.

    • rakanalysis | August 15, 2013 at 7:31 am

      The thing is that Comic Sans is flawed even within the field where it was meant to be used; it neither represents handwriting very well, nor is it consistent within itself. It was originally meant to represent lettering as one would find in a comic book such as Watchmen, yet the lettering in Watchmen looks substantially more organic and fits the material vastly better than Comic Sans would.

    • Gavin | September 5, 2013 at 6:39 am

      Larry,

      Thanks for the response. You raise a valid point about the possibility of contamination – but I’m not certain in this case. Within a relatively small group, designers, web folk, ux guys, Comic Sans is mostly considered a cardinal sin, but the wider public? I’m not so sure.

      Typography like clothes fitting the occasion. Absolutely. The occasion for comic sans? perhaps a childrens party? where you are the hired clown? Comic Sans can easily take the place of a red nose, jazzy pants and oversize shoes. I wonder what other occasions there are?

  2. chillablaze | August 8, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Very good article, interesting points about the subtle effects on our subconscious!! Now I am wondering what font I should be using for my next article!!! :)

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  4. Yatin | August 8, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Does it make a huge difference making them Bold and.or Italic? I always prefer script to quote a phrase or expression.

  5. segmation | August 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    I once worked for a company that wanted everything consistently written in Times New Roman. I wonder if they did analytics to come up with this like you did?

  6. Stephanie Williamson-Brittian | August 8, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Wow, very interesting!!!

  7. Lady Fancifull | August 8, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Oh dear. I find Comic Sans is visually pleasing, simple soul that I am!

  8. Jason | August 8, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Very interesting. Some crazy person at work made all our documents in comic sans and bolded all the key words, horrible. But interesting that I automatically chose Baskerville for my font on Kindle. Great post and great food for thought :)

  9. allthoughtswork | August 8, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Well, that explains why I’ve always adored Baskerville and Book Antigua: I’m a genius. I’m just a font of knowledge. (rimshot)

    Speaking of which, one of the few complaints I have about WordPress is the lack of font choice in the themes.

  10. Margie | August 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Interesting information.
    What fonts did you choose for your blog, and why?

  11. ithabise | August 8, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    It’s so true! I became a “font scholar” in college. I take a great deal of time choosing. Great article!

  12. bravesmartbold | August 8, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Okay, I really like my typeface for my site’s title. But, I’ve been wondering if I should change it because it doesn’t read well. I think you helped me decide.

  13. Jean | August 8, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    I personally don’t use fonts with ‘feet’, or what was called in traditional calligraphy where the end of the limb has tiny shoe or mitten. (Baskerville to Georgia) I’m not total surprised by the result, that those preferred fonts are based on tradition typefaces/scripts and used to give an aura of seriousness, tradition.

    I would never use Comic Sans for any business nor technical document/presentation.

    But yes, for presentation, “open” but traditional font is simply clearer to the reader when they are trying to absorb a whole picture with additional textual fragments.

    (I took traditional calligraphy as an art form — where one PAINTED the steel cut pen nib. That is the true way of doing Western calligraphy. Dipping into the ink pot gives you uneven ink flow.)

  14. marymtf | August 8, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    I used to have a snazzy collection of fonts I downloaded off the internet. In the end though I have stuck to Times New Roman. It’s cleaner and clearer and much kinder on my aging eyes than the other fonts.

  15. sophiehatton | August 8, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Reblogged this on Sophie Hatton's Illustrations..

  16. Cathy Kilpatrick Leadership | August 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I like Comic Sans for personal emails. It gives them a down-to-earth and more personal touch.
    For stuff at work, I prefer Times New Roman. It’s classic, clean and neat.
    The work default font is Arial. I find it somewhat boring and aesthetically displeasing.

  17. LauraH | August 9, 2013 at 2:13 am

    Interesting thoughts. I have always tended to shy away from comic sans, now I know why!

  18. SleeplessPsyche | August 9, 2013 at 2:58 am

    Interesting Psychology behind this. I suspect people will be rushing to change their fonts as I write!

  19. Joy | August 9, 2013 at 5:38 am

    I like Arial after I got older. ’nuff said…

  20. Luke Otley | August 9, 2013 at 6:47 am

    Ahh now it becomes clear…Georgia for all my coursework at university was a good choice

  21. moodsnmoments | August 9, 2013 at 6:51 am

    i so agree, I dislike misuse or abuse of fonts and they do have a sense of impact on us. your post is very pertinent. thank you for sharing and am glad it got freshly pressed.

  22. pickledwings | August 9, 2013 at 7:25 am

    This reminds me of Typography lessons when I was in art school studying graphic design. The psychological effect of fonts can never be underestimated.

    I was studying in the mid 1990s when the various “grunge” fonts were so popular. Frankly, they reeked of pessimism and left me cold. I couldn’t wait for that fad to end.

    As for my own font usage; I quite often found myself leaning toward Optima for headers and Palatino for body copy.

    Though I no longer work in graphic design, I still love the clean elegance of Optima and the way that Palatino captures that classic look but at the same time has stylistic subtleties that work to set it apart from Times New Roman, Garramond and the usual stable of serif fonts that get used for copy.

    The best use of Comic Sans that I ever saw was on a tombstone if you can believe it! It turned out to be the grave of a graphic designer who was having the last laugh.

    • Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) | August 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      I, too, have long been especially fond of Optima, which is an elegant “third way” – neither serif nor sans. I am old enough to remember when Life magazine adopted it for the body text in one of their modernization moves, for which they received raves for the clean appearance and great readability. It was that transition that first made me aware of how much a typeface can contribute to the look-and-feel of written material and started my long romance with typography.

      In interior design for books, I like keeping my options open, always seeking for readability as well as the right “feel” on the page in relation to the content. I have used Optima, Garamond, Baskerville, and even Bodoni. Of late, I have found Gentium Book to be a versatile and pleasing improvement on Times New Roman, from which it is descended. It is both slightly heavier yet less dense on the page and was designed for readability.

      I have used Palatino, but it has a peculiar feel in large blocks of text, as in a book, owing to its relatively heavy and varying strokes and open spaces that seem to make individual letters almost too prominent. In smaller doses, it can be very appealing.

      On PowerPoint slides projected at XGA resolution, most serif typefaces suffer, particularly at smaller sizes. I settled on Twentieth Century in regular and condensed and occasionally condensed extra bold as signature fonts for my PPT decks. The TC family carries a clean, contemporary message that says “not your everyday Helvetica or your common Arial” yet is readable from the back of the room.

  23. That Girl Shelley | August 9, 2013 at 8:04 am

    I do believe that fonts choice can help to relate your message. I think that thicker fonts are more assertive (matter of fact) while handwritten fonts have more of a personal quality. I am not a fan of comic sans.

  24. jemmarene | August 9, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Stupid comic sans!

  25. awax1217 | August 9, 2013 at 8:30 am

    A great point the message stress is in the message delivery. A speech by any other name may be affected by the speaker. Hamlet done by Richard Nixon versus Hamlet done by Jim Carrey. Good points. I now have to look at my Font and analysis it. I have been using 16 as a size and Ariel as the Font. I did 16 because it is easier for me to see. Do you think that the readers are turned off by it? Should I stick to the normal 12 and accept that this is the norm and not go against the grain? What do you think?

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  27. Tony | August 9, 2013 at 10:52 am

    There’s a really good book out there called “Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans” It’s worth a look. This article was really interesting to read. Thank you for posting it. Lots of good info in here. I like Georgia by the way. I’m not sure why it’s aesthetically pleasing to me but, it is.

  28. teresabrucebooks | August 9, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    The right font is like pornography — you know it when you see it. From a reader’s perspective, when you see a book set in the wrong font, it’s almost perverted. So many writers decide to self-publish — which can be a great way to keep control of your content and profit — but a big drawback is the font choices available in most platforms. Combine that with the fact that most writers do not moonlight as graphic designers and you have a great case for traditional publishing. Luckily I’ve been spared the learning curve, thanks to a great design crew at Joggling Board Press. Fonts are just the beginning!

  29. John | August 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Excellent, excellent article. I’m a little surprised to see Helvetica with a lower believability. And actually, it’s very interesting that the more believable typefaces on that chart are serifs.

    If you ever want to see the difference a typeface makes, find a movie poster and replace their choice with, say, Comic Sans or really any other drastically different typeface. It’s amazing how much different it feels.

  30. Midwestern Plant Girl | August 9, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I do agree about the comic sans dealio. I did use it for the headers of my posts as I do tend to write technical stuff, but don’t want to scare the laymen away. At least that was my thought. I do agree with a fellow commenter, that WP needs to have a few more offerings of fonts.
    Congrats on getting pressed!!

  31. Sofia | August 9, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    Great post, I’ve been quite obsessed with learning about fonts since I started my blog. I still have a lot to learn but I now find it so interesting. Its so interesting too how a font can influence how serious or not a text can be, as you point out, and set the mood for things.

  32. swarrajk | August 9, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    very interesting post!

  33. Mitch Zeissler | August 9, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    You’re echoing the same words I was taught in communication design school back in the late 1970s — serifed fonts are generally taken more seriously and they are easier to read than sans serif fonts in large blocks of type. There’s a reason that newspapers haven’t migrated over to sans serif fonts, and you’ve hit it on the head.

    And yes, I deliberated at length over font selection on my own site before settling on what I felt were the best serifed offerings available.

  34. amyhartline | August 9, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I’ve always somewhat disliked Comic Sans (it always seemed too loud for me). But I never really understood the importance of font choice until randomly watching the Helvetica documentry. Admittedly, I only watched it to be able to say that I had, but it really did teach me a lot about font and which ones to use.

  35. Leslie | August 10, 2013 at 2:35 am

    interesting read! :)

  36. steelnino | August 10, 2013 at 7:08 am

    excellent post, thank you for confirming my hunch. I also think there may be subtle influences involved in how a paragraph is constructed on screen: look at paulgraham.com then to essays…..he keeps the width of paragraphs on screen to half, which causes the reader to think the paragraphs are long—when in fact they are not that long—thus brining invisible relief to the reader….

  37. llx | August 10, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Reblogged this on Growing Up.

  38. Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) | August 10, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    An oddity coming out of the proliferating references to the Errol Morris study is that many are citing it as demonstrating that Baskerville is “the best” typeface. The research did not compare large numbers of typefaces nor even many of the various families in typography. Of this particular set of 6 fonts, Baskerville comes out on top for persuasion, but it is entirely possible that some other font, not tested, could be dramatically better than Baskerville.

    One also wonders how the results might have come out if the subjects had been asked to rate how funny a joke was or how likely they would be to buy some product based on its description or how positively they felt about the writer or how well-written some literary passage was.

  39. Barbara | August 10, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Hi

    I am dyslexic, and as a result find serif fonts such as Times New Roman, Baskerville & Georgia hard to read. The serifs (squiggly bits at the ends of the letters) were deliberately introduced into academic texts to slow the reader down. They are now standard fonts for all academic texts and unfortunately most books. Font sizes of 12 and below also make the test harder to read, and as a result almost ALL the prolific readers in the world need glasses by the age of 30 for short-sightedness.

    If books were printed in size 14 font, lots of people would never have needed glasses. Hopefully the advent of electronic books which allow people to chose their fonts and text size will improve the eyesight of generations to come!

    As a result of the academic precedent, texts in serif fonts are taken more seriously, but also not read by a huge proportion of the population who are dyslexic or struggle to read, as the serif additions increase the difficulty.

    I compose all my work in a sans serif font, there are plenty of other options apart from Comic Sans, which is not supposed to be taken seriously (see the title of the font) It’s not even recommended in schools as the letters are not formed correctly, schools prefer fonts such as Sassoon Primary which display letters correctly

    Please have another think about your poor dyslexic readers and maybe try the test again with some more inclusive fonts? Maybe have a go at comparing the new ‘default font’ for MS word ‘Calibri’ with some other sans serif fonts eg: Arial, Trebuchet, Century Gothic, Comic Sans, Sassoon Primary

    Please have a look at my post about dyslexia at http://www.looneyatoms.com to get a feel for how hard it is for people who struggle to read

    PS I agree about your reworking of the diagram, it is far better and more credible with the new layout and font but still retains the readability as it uses a clear font :-) Anything written in comic sans looks like a comic strip

  40. eldash98 | August 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Slm

  41. mcwatty9 | August 10, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Very interesting study. Perhaps when writing for humor, it is best to use comic sans.

  42. NotAPunkRocker | August 10, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Very interesting! My last job required all forms be created using Comic Sans. No, not a preschool, but an administrative office of a government agency. I wish I had taken that for the sign that it was and left sooner than I did.

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  44. makais | August 11, 2013 at 2:54 am

    what does “courier new” say?

  45. amydeboer | August 11, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Interesting…

  46. nishantpatelmedia | August 12, 2013 at 6:30 am

    Reblogged this on 23nish.

  47. greatlakeslabel | August 12, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Unless someone is writing a book from the perspective of a rainbow colored unicorn, I don’t see any real use for the font “Comic Sans”.

  48. greatlakeslabel | August 12, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Reblogged this on GreatLakesLabel LLC and commented:
    Interesting post!

  49. melayne | August 13, 2013 at 8:37 am

    I had a manager, whom I respected, but used Comic Sans in all of her meeting minutes and emails. It drove me nuts. I’m a clean font person myself so I tend to go for Century Gothic, or anything similar in most of my writing.For something more classic, I go for Poor Richard, although the type at default is quite small so I usually have to blow it up a bit. I tend to agree with a commenter above. WordPress needs more font. I use Google Drive for writing and there are so many new, modern looking fonts on there. Take note WordPress!
    Thanks for the blog.

  50. JWilliams | August 14, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Interesting, I am always game for how we play the subconscious game! Colorful and attractive can’t wait to read more of your stuff! :) Hope you can stop by my blog and shed some light!

  51. rosesonwaters | August 15, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Bookmarked

  52. thosesmallmoments | August 16, 2013 at 5:12 am

    An interesting read! I always know there is a reason why I’ve always hated Comic Sans, but for some reason, my professor loved using it. She was very believable when she discusses the lecture, but her presentation really does prove otherwise.

  53. martininkorea | August 16, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Interesting read! I do think typeface is important when conveying a certain type of message in text. Some fonts work for more humourous styles of writing while others work best for more serious styles. I, for one, am fan of Arial.

  54. the little bird | August 17, 2013 at 6:26 am

    I do wish someone showed this too my course mates! We may stare at rocks and bits of old bone for most of the year, but that is no excuse for using comic sans in a scientific presentation!

  55. tinygraycells | August 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Just spent all morning choosing my fonts for my class worksheets. Surprisingly hard to find one which drew each character the way I like them (if I liked the ‘a’ it was likely that I wouldn’t like the tail on the ‘g’ or the ‘?’). It’s all going to be a bit trail and error for a bit as the sheets are part of a much larger change; but I’m certainly now going to include ‘trustworthiness’ and ‘debate-ability’ that the fonts imply, in the feedback discussions. Thanks for giving me something else to think about!

  56. dreamlikeitsreal | August 18, 2013 at 12:16 am

    Give this a try
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/paws/cats-as-fonts
    I totally agree with you

  57. pandwphotography | August 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Very interesting read. It’s amazing, when comparing the two, how much more believable the second diagram looks. Although I’ve known this and certainly consider font choices carefully, you have just reiterated why I do so. It’s a great reminder. Thanks!

  58. mel | August 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    ugh,I agonise over font choice. Always used arial at uni and never got past that but there are all so many, what should I use on my blog?
    As for comic sans,so darn condescending in my opinion. I feel it stands out for all the wrong reasons however I find it is one of the most distinguishable between most fonts like a TV commercial that was created bad just to make it memorable..ugh
    Thanks for the read, feel free to critique on my blog text

  59. Guru365 | August 20, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Trial and error wins the day – doesn’t cost a thing to see what your text looks like!
    I for one resort to ‘professional’ fonts for most things I do nowadays, I suppose you just become a slave to a font :-)

  60. universeminds | August 28, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Reblogged this on i ordered caramel macchiato from the universe and commented:
    typografi! *love*

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  64. Janet Osborne | April 26, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    I am but a humble layperson, albeit one with more than a passing interest in font design (an amateur fontophile, perhaps), and am here to report that Comic Sans’ reputation has made it all the way across to common knowledge as the least credible, most dastardly font ever to (dis)grace the page. HOWEVER … my partner has done a lot of work with people with dyslexia and other reading disabilities over the years and assures me that it is the most readable font for people with reading disabilities. So there you go …

    • Gavin | April 26, 2014 at 4:56 pm

      Janet,

      Thanks for the comment. There are actually a couple of fonts specially designed for people with Dyslexia.

      One is open source – http://opendyslexic.org/
      the other I know about is Dyslexie, which is a commercial font. http://www.dyslexiefont.com/en/dyslexia-font/

      According to scientific american – The font works by tweaking the appearance of certain letters of the alphabet that dyslexics commonly misconstrue, such as “d” and “b,” to make them more recognizable.

      It was designed by a Dutchman, Christian Boer began designing the font in 2008 while studying at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. It eventually became his graduate school project. In December 2010 a fellow student conducted an independent study on the font as part of a master’s thesis and discovered a significant reduction in reading errors by dyslexics when reading Dutch text typed in Dyslexie as opposed to the Arial font.

      I hope that helps. It may be even easier to read than comic sans.

  65. dotzooapps | November 19, 2014 at 4:28 am

    Thanks for share this article. “The real point is that typography, like clothes, needs to fit the message and occasion.”

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