I was lucky about 25 years ago — I got a job working with someone who was fascinated with typography and who knew it well. I’d dabbled a bit in it, as my college newspaper migrated from phototypesetting to computer typesetting, but it was only in these early career days with an available mentor that I learned about serifs, kerning, counters, leading, ascenders, and descenders, as well as the palpable but subtle differences between superficially similar typefaces (Univers vs. Helvetica vs. Futura, for instance). Being an autodidact, I immersed myself in fonts for many months, buying books, reading magazines, using tools, visiting designers, and so forth. Within a couple of years, I’d gained enough knowledge so that when I needed a job in a pinch, I was able to parley a full-time job setting type for academic textbooks.
Cracking the code on type has helped me see a different part of the psychology of communication, and one that’s often overlooked — the aesthetic aspect and its almost undetectable power. A recent two-part series by Errol Morris in the New York Times sought to explore fonts and their effect on credulity — their ability to generate “truthiness” themselves.
Morris did this in a clever way, writing an initial column ostensibly testing whether readers were optimists or pessimists based on how they responded to statements called out separately from the main text. With the assistance of a computer programmer, Morris was able to show each viewer these statements in one of six randomly generated fonts — Georgia, Comic Sans, Baskerville, Computer Modern, Trebuchet, or Helvetica. Then, through analysis of the more than 45,000 quiz results, he and David Dunning, a psychology professor at Cornell, were able to draw some conclusions.
In short, Baskerville proved to be what they call “the king of fonts,” making the true statements more likely to be accepted and less likely to be dismissed. The p-value was 0.0068.
This may be a surprising result to Morris and Times readers, but it makes complete sense to typographers. In fact, my typography mentor used to mention how Baskerville was so good for conveying information because it “disappeared” to the reader more easily than other fonts with more exotic strokes, x-heights, or designs, allowing almost unconscious absorption of the underlying information. This comports well with Morris’ little experiment — after all, there’s nothing more likely to aid credulity than unconscious absorption of information.
Interestingly, the runner-up to Baskerville was Computer Modern, a font designed for the American Mathematical Society and its TeX typesetting program. It’s widely used in scholarly publishing because of its compatibility with TeX. A a modern typeface, it has perfectly vertical axes and strong contrast between thicks and thins. By comparison, Baskerville is a transitional font, bridging between old style and modern, with some counter offsets and less contrast between stroke weights.
This raises to me a broader question about how type contributes to the authority and credulity of scientific information. Every journal redesign I’ve done has included a desire to change some aspects of the typography, but we could never drift far from an authoritative font. Those with typographic training and experience knew why, but the feeling was universal — there was something “wrong” if the font drifted too far from traditional letterforms and into something conveying more art than information.
The power of type is nicely illustrated in this section from the film Helvetica. In this clip, Michael Beirut (who I was lucky enough to work closely with on one journal redesign) describes how Helvetica itself injected authority and power into corporate communications, launching the current era of corporateness:
Is this typographic power part of why the PDF is still so important to our readers and users?
Look at the typography of the HTML pages of most sites, and you see major deficiencies. It’s often sans serif, with long lines and poor leading, and set in sizes and weights that have no rhyme or reason — or it’s Times Roman with compromised screen contrasts and strange kerning. It’s no wonder readers want the PDF — there, the journal truly manifests itself, in typography, page layout, and sensible allocations of information in an understandable aesthetic.
While Morris believes he tested typefaces, he was actually testing a number of factors that stream from the faces he chose and their setting — kerning, leading, line set, type size, and so forth. He conducted his test on backlit monitors. Would the outcome have changed if paper had been the substrate?
The aesthetics of authority are delicate. Push too far into the adventurous, and you can lose it. Stay too long in an outdated mode of representing authority, and you look irrelevant or stodgy.
As this little experiment shows, even the letterforms you choose could have an impact on how much authority your words carry.
(Hat tip to PMD for the Helvetica clip and to SW’s Twitter feed for the pointer.)