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Font Matters, or Why Comic Sans Can’t be Trusted

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Typography, or the application of fonts as we of the computer generation like to call them, have always played an integral role in how a book is perceived. For instance, a paper for a school assignment looks best in Times New Roman, because that’s the way it’s always been (for us young-ins). Some buck the trend and go with something like Papyrus or Book Antiqua or something like that, but in general, professionalism in the academic world is associated with ubiquitous font. Besides, 5,000 words of Papyrus is like stabbing the eyes with ancient egyptian needles. We’ve all been there.

For paper-back novels, Garamond, Minion and Dante have been a go-to for the last decade. You might not recognize them by their individual shapes, but you’d inherently equate them with reading a book. Similarly, if you saw a book set in Times New Roman while flipping through, you might think it amateurish. But this begs the question: how much do we trust fonts?

Errol Morris, the famed documentary director and an essayist for the New York Times, decided to research this phenomenon. Back in early July, Morris ran a quiz, entitled “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” that asked the reader about their perceived safety in the face of an Asteroid catastrophe here on earth. But as it turns out, we weren’t being polled on our extra-planetary paranoia.

Morris set the poll up so that it would randomly display one of a few select fonts: Baskerville, Comic Sans, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica and Trebuchet. As it turns out, the font has a very important role on the how much we “trust” the text.

Comic Sans, the clown of the font world, ranked lowest in trustworthiness and highest and distrust. Baskerville, on the other hand, was the most trustworthy and the least distrust-worthy. David Dunning, at Cornell, helped wrangle the data.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth — truthiness.

DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know.

It’s important to understand that this test worked, but the reasons behind it are unknown as of yet. For the complete article, which is a must read in my book, head over to the NYT: “Hear, All Ye People; Harken, O Earth.” Interest piqued? Check out the Most Popular Fonts of 2011 by MyFonts.com.

Oh, and the next time you type up a paper and really want to stick out, think again before changing the font. Read the article to find out why.

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