In the summer of 2013 scientists at CERN presented what was considered to be one the most important scientific presentations ever, the existence of the Higgs Boson. This was a discovery of such great importance that the presentation was subtitled The God Particle.
Sadly though many of the first reactions of the immediate audience for that presentation was not to be awed but to snicker, not because of its content but because the serious scientists had chosen one of the most ridiculed fonts in the world – Comic Sans – to present their findings in. The first Tweets that went out about this wondrous discovery were not about how great it was but how terrible it was that the presentation – and the accompanying PDF report – was created with such a poor choice when it came to the typography.
This is a rather extreme example of how the right typography can make or break a visual piece, and this is especially true in marketing. And the CERN scientists are far from alone. All too often a website, email, sales flyer or business card, content that took so many precious hours, weeks maybe even months to create can be completely undermined by typography that uses the wrong fonts, the wrong font sizing, the wrong spacing and even the wrong font colors.
Fonts and Psychology
Not sure that a font can really affect a person’s perception of content? Here’s an example that proves it can. Errol Morris of The New York Times decided to conduct an experiment on his online readers. The article that was the medium for it came in two parts. The first was a basic, but rather serious, piece about a recent study that had been conducted into optimism and pessimism. The second was a short blurb that asked readers to comment about how plausible they felt the study’s results to be.
The catch was that the NYT’s website programmers set it up so that different font types were presented to different readers when they clicked on the story; Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans, and Trebuchet. More than 40,000 people commented and then Morris and a team set about evaluating how the fonts affected response.
What they found was that (as they had expected) the people who found the study to be the least credible were those who were presented the story in the light and silly Comic Sans. All of the other fonts are far more staid and serious though and the team did not expect a huge difference there. And yet there was a reasonably decisive winner; Baskerville. Those presented the story in this font were most likely to find the study credible and to make comment about why that was.
Morris suggested that the reason for this, in his mind, was that fonts do have a personality and Baskerville was a little ‘starchier’ than the slightly ‘tuxedo’ (his words) Georgia or Computer Modern, therefore the perfect font for presenting a slightly staid piece about a scientific study. The shame perhaps is that he conducted this study after the CERN scientists had made their faux pas.
Choosing the Right Typography for You
There are 1,001 books, articles and opinions about just which fonts, font sizes, line spacings etc. are best for use for various different content types. As a basic resource they are certainly useful but when it comes to typography the most important consideration should be whether or not it fits the content you are presenting.
If, for example, you happen to be selling products specifically for children even the much
maligned Comic Sans might work (although there are those designers who say it should never, ever be used) and certainly presenting using a ‘starchy’ font like Baskerville is unlikely to convey the sense of fun you probably want your audience to pick up about your products.
The lesson here is that basics like size, spacing color and font mix are very important considerations for presentation typography, especially in terms of the all-important readability. But approaching such decisions in a blindly formulaic way (Expert X says use 30 pt. black Arial so I will!) way could be as damaging to the success of your content than not thinking about it at all.
So where can you go to learn more about fonts, font choices and how to use them to you brand’s best advantage?
This tutorial from the image creation experts at Canva is a great place to start.