Since you first learned to read, do you know how many words that you’ve come across? Millions? Maybe even hundreds of millions? Even if you aren’t an avid reader, The Guardian estimates we’re exposed to approximately 490,000 words a day – a number that only continues to grow as we come across increasing amounts of content online.
From the dullest PowerPoint presentations to the greatest scientific discoveries, humanity has relied on the written word to convey and preserve information, opinions and ideals. While ancient monks spent lifetimes painstakingly hand-copying books, the printing press eliminated this arduous process (and arguably gave people with poor penmanship a much needed break) – leading to the creation of typefaces, fonts and a standardised presentation of words. Curious about the world of typography? Read on to find out more…
The typeface emporium
Although the terms “font” and “typeface” are often treated synonymously, they are not quite the same. For example, consider the typeface Arial, which has many different font styles like Arial Narrow, Arial Black, Arial Bold Italic etc. In a nutshell, business magazine Fast Company compares fonts and typefaces as songs and albums, respectively. “The former makes up the latter, remember that and you’re good to go.”
Typefaces can be divided into three primary categories – script, serif and sans serif. Script typefaces string letters together in a cursive-esque manner to imitate handwriting, and are rarely used outside of brand logos or headers (think Coca-Cola or Instagram’s signature logo) because of the unnecessary stress they create for readers through their stylistic strokes. Serif and sans serif typefaces are better suited for body copy, although their popularity hasn’t prevented them from being used in just about any imaginable scenario!
To discern between a serif or sans serif, simply look for the little hinges and tails (called serifs) hanging off of the ends of the alphabet like I, T, P or i, t, p. When absent, the typeface is sans (without) serif. Note also that certain letters in serif typefaces have strokes of varying thicknesses, while sans serif usually have the same line weight throughout – evoking a more handwritten touch to the copy.
To serif or not to serif
Before you fire up your word processing software and choose your favourite font, studies have shown that the typeface you choose can trigger a psychological response in your readers. In 2013, American author and film director Errol Morris collaborated with The New York Times to run a social experiment that allegedly tested whether participants were optimists or pessimists by having them read a passage and then answering several questions. However, the experiment was actually a clever ploy to test people’s receptiveness and susceptibility towards certain typefaces. Identical articles were prepared using different common serif and sans-serif typefaces, including Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet.
The experiment provided interesting insight for Morris, revealing that most people found the 250-year old serif typeface Baskerville (Wordsmith’s typeface of choice) to be the most effective at convincing readers on the merits of the article. Serif fonts, like the iconic Times New Roman, are a staple of newspapers and organisations due to their connotations of tradition, authority and respect. Combining high quality content with a trustworthy typeface delivers a double blow that encourages readers to keep reading (and keep believing)!
That said, serif fonts are often considered old-fashioned and formal. If you’re looking for a more casual reading experience, then sans serif typefaces may be a better option. Without the serifs, typefaces appear cleaner and more modern – making the text more inviting, and much easier to read and engage with. As a result, many brands today use sans serif typefaces, from tech giants like Apple or Microsoft to everyday brands like Nike or even McDonalds.
Generally speaking, there’s no rule that says sans serif typefaces can’t be used for every occasion, but if in doubt, just remember the outcome of Morris’ experiment and consider whether or not you need to project an aura of authority. One word of advice when choosing a sans serif typeface, avoid using Comic Sans MS (the black sheep of the typeface world) due to its unsymmetrical design, poor kerning (the spacing between each letter) and juvenile appearance.
It’s just hard to take this seriously, isn’t it?
Copy with a cognitive boost
Still unsure about the merits of typography? Consider a study conducted by Dr. Kevin Larson of Microsoft and Dr. Rosalind Picard of MIT that examined whether typography can affect a reader’s mood and cognitive performance – where a good page layout includes typographically correct headers, paragraph indentation, proper figure placement and block quoting.
The results were staggering, revealing that good typography led readers to underestimate their reading speed (a measure of how engrossed they were in the article). Subjects in this group finished reading the text more than five minutes quicker than their predicted time, despite being purposely interrupted by researchers. Cognition-wise, these subjects were much more capable of solving a problem posed in the text. Subjects who received the same instructions in poor typography not only struggled to read the content, but were also less likely to finish reading the text in the allotted time.
Serif, sans serif and script – each have their own time and place. Used wisely, the proper typeface can help you influence readers beyond the explicit messages in your copy, conveying subtle information that contributes to the overall impact of your words.