Are we there yet? Don’t be a dingbat when choosing a font

By From page A6 | July 16, 2014

Something that I’m supremely interested in that I’m pretty sure is actually boring beyond words is fonts. I love the variety and how it’s possible to find just the right one to convey a message. For example, a lariat-style font makes a fun headline if you’re doing a story on a calf-roping competition.

As I’ve been looking at scores of newspaper front pages over the past month to see modern layouts that we at The Enterprise might emulate, fonts are a big issue.

I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, “Fonts? You mean the way the letters look as I’m reading? I don’t even notice that.” Which is probably a main goal when choosing typeface for many column inches of newspaper print … notice the content, not the text.

Recently I read a story by Chris Gayomali titled “How typeface influences the way we read and think” from The Week (http://theweek.com/article/index/245632/how-typeface-influences-the-way-we-read-and-think). This June 2013 article told the story of the researchers who presented their ground-breaking findings about the Higgs boson “God Particle” in the highly irreverent font called Comic Sans. I confess to liking Comic Sans; when it’s used to deliver a casual message, or maybe a newsletter from a kindergarten teacher, it’s adorable.

But is “adorable” what these heavy-hitter scientists were going for as they presented one of the biggest discoveries in years? The charts, the equations and the summaries were all delivered in a childlike, simplistic typeface better suited to a kid’s lemonade stand. Kind of makes me want to spew a string of zapf dingbats.

Although we might like to think we are beyond judging books by their covers, our brains are wired to value how things look. And our brains don’t value Comic Sans.

The Week story went on to say that Errol Morris of The New York Times “conducted an experiment on the publication’s unsuspecting online readers.” An article about a scientific study was posted on the NY Times site in six different fonts: Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. A quiz after the article evaluated whether readers believed the study’s conclusions.

The quiz results showed that readers were more likely to believe the conclusions when the story was presented in Baskerville; they were least likely when it was presented in Comic Sans. Baskerville is a serious and elegant font, conveying the notion that what you are reading is important and true.

Further in the article, a university student named Phil Renaud conducted an informal study on fonts. In six semesters, he wrote 52 essays using three different fonts. Of the 11 essays Renaud wrote in Times New Roman, a very common font, his average grade was A-minus. He wrote 18 essays in Trebuchet MS, receiving an average grade of B-minus. And of the 23 essays he wrote using the font Georgia, he had an A average.

Said The Week story, “Renaud’s observations were consistent with a 1998 study from Carnegie Mellon, which pitted Times New Roman against Georgia. Participants overwhelmingly preferred Georgia over its stodgier doppelgänger, judging Georgia to be ‘sharper, more pleasing, and easier to read.’ ”

Although the bumps in grades or believability were not huge in the font experiments, it seems like a good idea to tip the scales in your favor by using Baskerville or Georgia for essays and research. Maybe it will be the difference between your kid getting into Harvard or not.

— Tanya Perez is an associate editor at The Enterprise. Her column publishes every other Wednesday. Reach her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @enterprisetanya

Tanya Perez

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