Writers, It’s Not What You Say…

It’s which font you’re using to say it.

In 2014, three researchers from England handed out brochures describing a new prenatal intervention program to a group of pregnant women. To test the impact of readability, some of the pamphlets were manipulated and used a harder-to-read font and a difficult title.

The results were astounding: women evaluated the same procedure as more complex and less appealing when the font was less legible and the title wasn’t clear.

Font choice is more than just a means to an end. Everywhere we look, we’re surrounded by text. Well thought-out (sometimes), designed, branded text, which makes us think, feel, and act in a certain way. Here’s how it works..

Contrary to popular belief, fonts have been around for many centuries. With the spread of printed media, font style was given more attention as an element that carries meaning by itself. And even today, digital platforms don’t take away from the significance of the written word, but quite the opposite. Literacy rates have gone up, and content consumption is at an all-time high.

Font types fall into one of five categories, also known as typefaces. The two most common are serifs, which include finish strokes at the edge of letters along with a more old-fashioned format, and sans serifs, which lack these elements and manifest a ‘cleaner’, more legible style. The other typefaces are script, which mimics the natural flow of handwriting; monotype, which maintains identical size and spacing; and display, which is used in big headlines.

Research shows that font selection affects more than appearance. It invokes feelings and influences our cognitive judgment when we approach a text. More practically, it can help us read faster or slow us down significantly. It can boost our productivity or hold us back. And what’s fascinating is we don’t always know what’s best for us.

A new study reveals astonishing differences in reading speed by font. Participants read almost 80 more words per minute in their fastest font, compared to their slowest one (312 vs. 232). Another study from 2020 found a 117-word-per-minute difference in reading speed, which translates into an additional 10 pages an hour. In productivity terms, that is mind-blowing. Perhaps surprisingly, in both studies, participants’ font of choice was not their fastest, but actually much slower.

Generally speaking, sans serif fonts like Calibri were found to increase readability, along with Helvetica, Oswald, and Open Sans, and Noto Sans. Unfortunately, however, it’s not a one-size-fits-all. This means digital platforms should shift towards individualized reading options, and help users figure out their best fonts. Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes.

But it’s not merely about speed. A font choice can affect our inclination to do something and our overall impression of a text.

In a 2008 study conducted in the US, two groups of participants were given the same recipe written in different fonts. They were asked to evaluate how long it would take to prepare and how willing they were to do it. The group that dealt with the harder-to-read font estimated it would take much longer, and showed less readiness to make it. The researchers concluded: If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do.

Companies now know that. In recent years, we’ve seen multi-billion-dollar brands like Google, Netflix, and Amazon shed those extra strokes in favor of sans serif fonts that reflect a fresh and more modern style. Graphic designers like Paula Scher, who was featured in the Netflix series Abstract: The Art of Design, harness the impact of typography in their work, and help companies make sure their style reflects their mission and vision.

This shouldn’t matter only to designers, though. Any kind of content creator — from copywriters to bloggers to journalists to teachers even — must consider the value of typography in their work. The font you choose is more than a stylistic preference. It can affect how your writing is received, how easily it is accessed, and what readers want to do with it.

We’re told to not judge a book by its cover. But hey, no one said anything about the font.