What the font? How typeface can change the meaning of a text

February 25, 2020

When Monotype released the first redesign in 35 years of the global design community’s favorite typeface — Helvetica — I sat back and waited patiently for our designers to react. Yet the Slack message where the news was shared earned only a semicolon emoji, an astonished emoji and a heart emoji, none of which were a designer’s reaction to the news. Unless they collectively had a meltdown in a private channel, it’s safe to assume they liked the new Helvetica Now.

I was expecting a reaction because people who know about typography tend to have very strong opinions about it. They will tell you exactly why you can’t use Georgia on a Keynote presentation or why Tahoma works best if it’s set at 12 points instead of 11. Some of them will insist on explaining why Arial is nothing but a cheap knock-off of Helvetica. Most of them will agree that under any no circumstances should you use Papyrus or Comic Sans.

The latter is the foolproof example of how wrong a typeface design can go, despite having been developed with the best of intentions. Its creator, type designer Vincent Connare, was working at Microsoft at the time and thought there was something about the newly released Microsoft Bob — a more user-friendly interface for Windows operating systems — that just wasn’t friendly enough. It was its typeface. It was too formal for an interface that featured a cartoon living room and characters that could easily have been taken out of a 1990s kids’ show. So he decided to come up with a more relatable typeface based on the DC and Marvel comics he liked to read. Comic Sans was born. Shortly after, Microsoft Bob was discontinued, but Comic Sans, its bad reputation, and our aversion to it, live on.

But if it hadn’t been for the collective reaction to Comic Sans since its inception in 1994, would it still has today the same negative effect on readers that is still has today? And how do typefaces become so powerful that, in some cases, they become more important than the text itself?

Why looks matter

On July 9th 2012, writer and filmmaker Errol Morris published an article on The New York Times Opinionator blog called “Are you an Optimist, or a Pessimist?”. It included a brief passage out of David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity about the unlikelihood that Earth will be hit and destroyed by an asteroid. Morris then asked readers the question “Is it true that ‘we live in an era of unprecedented safety?’” The readers selected “yes” or “no” and submitted their answer, which would determine if they were indeed optimists or pessimists.

Plot twist: Morris wasn’t really trying to assess if readers’ thought their cups were half empty or half full. Readers had, in fact, been shown the passage in different typefaces — Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. What Errol wanted to determine was whether or not different typefaces had different impacts on readers and influenced their opinion about the veracity of the quote.

He concluded they did. Those who read the passage in Baskerville were more likely to agree with it than those who read it in Helvetica or Comic Sans. David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell University who helped Morris design this experiment, explains that “fonts have different personalities” and it should come as no surprise that Baskerville, a more established and formal looking typeface, sounds more true to readers than the childish Comic Sans.

But Morris wasn’t alone in experimenting around the premise that people associate different typefaces with distinct personalities. In 2006, Phil Renaud, a student at the University of Windsor, had already written about a non-intentional test he had run on the same topic.

During his sixth semester at university, Renaud noticed he was doing better than usual on his term papers, despite not having dedicated more time to his studies towards the end of his degree. Quite the opposite: it was during his second year that he had more free time to study and yet that was also the time during which his grades declined. Renaud, who stored copies of all his essays and papers, decided to have a look to try to find a pattern in his grades. The only possible explanation he could find was the typeface he wrote the papers in.

From a total of 52 essays, 11 were in Times New Roman and had an A- average, 18 were in Trebuchet MS and had a B- average, and 23 in Georgia, with an A average. In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, Renaud wrote:

“Georgia is enough like Times to retain its academic feel, and is different enough to be something of a relief for the grader. Trebuchet seems to set off a negative trigger, maybe just based on the fact that it’s not as easy to read in print, maybe on the fact that it looks like something off a blog rather than an academic journal.”

And while he didn’t conduct this experiment knowingly, or doesn’t think any professor would consciously give a paper written in Trebuchet a lower grade than he would give a paper written in Georgia, Renaud does believe it’s possible that, on a subconscious level, “a person sees a Serif font and thinks ‘proper, academic’, and sees a Sans font and thinks ‘focus is on the style, not the substance; must lack integrity.’”

Not so subconscious is the way people usually respond to information written in Comic Sans. It is perhaps the typeface that illicits the most negative reactions in readers.

When the CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, they announced it to the world in a presentation written in Comic Sans. People were so enraged by this that within an hour after the announcement, #ComicSans was trending on Twitter while #GodParticle — a far more important topic — was left behind.

Just my type

From a design perspective, Comic Sans is a poorly designed typeface that is unpleasant to the eyes. A couple of years ago, designer and author David Kadavy explained exactly why in Design for Hackers.

Comic Sans letters are disproportionate when it comes to their “visual weight” or “texture”, which is what determines a typeface’s legibility and readability. It also has a poor “letterfit”, which is the “consideration given to the letterforms to allow them to be set together in an even manner.” When a typeface is designed this way, it may result in awkward gaps between certain letters and in variable spacing between them.

But such aspects about Comic Sans that make it one of the biggest design faux pas are likely to go unnoticed by the untrained eye and are not the reason why people find it so disagreeable.

To the layperson, Comic Sans owes its bad reputation not to the way it is designed, but to its widespread, and usually out-of-place, usage. Since Microsoft Bob introduced it to the world, the typeface started being supplied with Microsoft Windows and landed in the hands of computer users who, prior to that, had only a very limited choice in fonts. Any font option available, including Comic Sans, could now be used in all sorts of texts, from school papers to Christmas cards and storefront signs. It was this widespread use even in formal and serious documents that gave the playful and unpretentious Comic Sans its fame of being childish and inappropriate.

This is also why we associate other typefaces with formality, seriousness, or credibility. Times New Roman, for example, was originally commissioned by the British newspaper The Times in 1931, but it expanded to book printing and general publishing. The typeface was also made available in Microsoft Windows and quickly became a popular choice for school papers or other serious documents. If it was used by a newspaper and by publishers, then it must be a sensible choice.

The same goes for Baskerville, the typeface in which the text seemed the most true to readers in Errol Morris’s experiment. It dates back to the 1750s, when it was designed by John Baskerville, an English businessmen who embarked on a mission to produce high-quality books at a time when book printing was done at a low standard and in conservative typefaces. And while it might have been revolutionary at the time, to us Baskerville still gives off that Old World vibe that we associate with old books and wisdom.

Our collective imagination is filled with these subconscious connections to different typefaces that are what make us almost instinctively know which typeface to choose on which occasion. That’s not to say that the way typefaces are designed doesn’t have an influence. It affects legibility, or how easily we comprehend characters, and readability, how easily we understand the writing, both of which are processed by our eyes and brains while reading a text, and make it a more or less difficult task depending on the font it’s written in. But when it comes to determining whether a typeface is good or bad, we don’t really care about its visual weight.

In the end, it’s all about context and about knowing your target audience. You can spend hours crafting the perfect text and then ruin everything by presenting it in a way that just doesn’t make sense in that situation. You probably wouldn’t send out invitations to a 5-year-old’s birthday party written in Times New Roman, but Comic Sans wouldn’t be that terrible a choice. Adults might find it ugly, but children find it playful and fun. Just like Vincent Connare intended it to be.

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