Do fonts affect people's opinions?  AUG 09 2012

You may remember a short piece by Errol Morris in the Times a few weeks ago that was more of a quiz than a essay. Well, the quiz turned out to be a smokescreen for how people's opinions change when the text is set in different typefaces.

Each Times participant read the passage in one of six randomly assigned fonts - Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. The questions, ostensibly about optimism or pessimism, provided data about the influence of fonts on our beliefs.

The test consisted of comparing the responses and determining whether font choice influenced our perception of the truth of the passage.

The results pointed to a small but noticeable effect in the authority of each font.

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don't know, truth - truthiness.

DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal - Comic Sans, obviously - and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don't really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

Update: Pentagram's Michael Bierut weighs in on Morris' article.

Whether or not a typeface can do any or all of those things, I do agree the landscape has changed. Once upon a time, regular people didn't even know the names of typefaces. Then, with the invention of the personal computer, people started learning. They had their opinions and they had their favorites. But until now, type was a still matter of taste. Going forward, if someone wants to tell the truth, he or she will know exactly what typeface to use. Of course, the truth is the truth no matter what typeface it's in. How long before people realize that Baskerville is even more useful if you want to lie?

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Errol Morris   Michael Bierut   typography

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