Choose your typeface with care

When all we had for printed communication was the typewriter, we didn’t need to consider typeface or fonts, we had no choice. Now however, with Words Processors and Page Layout programs being so readily available we have some choices about the typeface we use. Even before Word Processors, the influence of type on readers was well understood; it just wasn’t something that most of us needed to understand. Now we do.

When we read, we read with a voice in our head. The tone and personality of that voice are dictated by the typeface we use. Typeface is the non-verbal part of our communication and it plays a very important role in the whole communication.

Experienced typographers know the influence that fonts can have on readers. In a BBC Science radio documentary Neville Brody, a famous English graphic designer, typographer and art director, stated “the choice of a font will tell you how you will react emotionally to the information before you’ve even read anything.”

So powerful is the influence fonts, that the author James Herbert had an entire printing run of his book Fluke, pulled because the publisher used the font Times Roman rather than Plantin, the one he requested. Figure 1 show an excerpt from his book in Times Roman and Figure 2 shows the same excerpt in Plantin.

Figure 1: An excerpt from J. Herbert’s book Fluke using the rejected typeface Times Roman.

Figure 1: An excerpt from J. Herbert’s book Fluke using the rejected typeface Times Roman.

 

Figure 2: An excerpt from J. Herbert’s book Fluke using the requested typeface Plantin.

Figure 2: An excerpt from J. Herbert’s book Fluke using the requested typeface Plantin.

 

 

Our perception of fonts was the subject of research conducted at Wichita State University by A. Dawn Shaikh, Barbara S. Chaparro, and Doug Fox. The results of this study, which sought to determine if certain personalities and uses are associated with various fonts, was reported in Usability News in the February 2006 article Perception of Fonts: Perceived Personality Traits and Uses.

Among the conclusion was that the typeface Calibri, which is now distributed with Microsoft Office 2007, was one of the most popular all purpose fonts.

Readers Associate Specific Personalities to Fonts

This study examined the font preferences and perceived personalities that over 500 participants had for 20 popular fonts. The results present some interesting personality perceptions for fonts as well as some strong preferences for their use. Figure 20 show the top 3 fonts that suggested specific personalities. Using these results, we can begin to describe the message that a typeface delivers to our readers.
For example; the typeface Cambria, a new addition to the Microsoft Office 2007 offering, sends the message of stability, politeness, maturity, and practicality. Arial on the other hand suggests stability, conformity, and unimaginative.

Another typeface to notice is Impact, which suggests assertiveness and a number of more negative messages including rigid, rude, sad, unattractive, and course.

Figure 3: Top 3 fonts for each personality studied. (Shaikh, Chaparro, and Fox, 2006)

Figure 3: Top 3 fonts for each personality studied. (Shaikh, Chaparro, and Fox, 2006)

Analysis Suggest 5 Personality Groups

Further analysis of the results reveals 5 font factors that are based on both the font characteristics and personality traits. These 5 factors are All Purpose, Traditional, Happy Creative, Assertive, are shown in Figure 4 along with the typefaces that are most associated with these. Notice that Calibri is top of the list for All Purpose typefaces, and yet from Figure 3 it does not have any predominant personality trait associated with it.

Figure 4: Five dominant font personality groups. Fonts are listed in order of significance. (Shaikh, Chaparro, and Fox, 2006)

Figure 4: Five dominant font personality groups. Fonts are listed in order of significance. (Shaikh, Chaparro, and Fox, 2006)

When participants were asked if they would use a specific typeface for a specific use, some strong preferences emerged and are summarized in Figure 5. Interesting to note from these results is that, once again, a clear preference for serif or sans serif fonts did not emerge. This supports a mounting body of research that suggests that suitability of a typeface for a specific task or audience is not simply an issue of serif versus sans serif.

Figure 5: Font uses with the highest consistency among participants. Percent saying “Yes, I would use this font.” (Shaikh, Chaparro, and Fox, 2006)

Figure 5: Font uses with the highest consistency among participants. Percent saying “Yes, I would use this font.” (Shaikh, Chaparro, and Fox, 2006)

Our readers not only perceive messages from the typeface we select, but they are even able to identify some of these messages. As communicators, we need to be aware of these non-verbal messages and select our typefaces appropriately.

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Last updated: October 30, 2008
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