Truth, Typefaces, and Thinking

Riddle: When does a hard-to-read font lead to better comprehension?

Truth in Baskerville

Earlier this month, I came across a piece in a New York Times blog about the effects of typeface on the persuasiveness of a message. The piece includes an intriguing bit of anecdata from designer Phil Renaud and a web-based experiment.

Renaud had written 52 essays for university classes, and when he noticed an improvement in his grades, he was skeptical that his essays had gotten better when he was actually spending less time on them. One thing he had done differently was change the font:

  • 11 essays were in Times New Roman
  • 18 in Trebuchet MS
  • 23 in Georgia

When he computed his average grade for essays in each typeface, he found that while essays in Trebuchet came in at B–, those in Georgia averaged out to a solid A.

Because this was anecdotal information, the author of the NYT blog post, Errol Morris, created an experiment to try to determine whether typeface really has an impact on the perception of truth.

If you want to participate in the experiment yourself, stop reading this and go read Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

The typefaces he compared were:

  • Baskerville
  • Comic Sans
  • Computer Modern
  • Georgia
  • Helvetica
  • Trebuchet

Baskerville came out ahead; that is, it was found to generate the most agreement and least disagreement with the statement used in the experiment. Comic Sans, not too surprisingly, came in last. The results for Helvetica surprised me most of all. It came in second to last. Read the results found near the end of Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth (Part One). The message here is that typeface does affect perception and persuasiveness.
Baskerville is believable.

But why are people swayed by the typeface when the content hasn’t changed?

Cognitive Ease

I recently finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (and I recommend it). In one section he explores the ways we can manipulate the delivery of a message to make it more believable.

A summary of the tactics found to boost truthiness:

  • Increase legibility—a boldface statement is more likely to be believed than a similar statement in normal type.
  • Maximize contrast between text and the background; avoid text colors in the midranges of contrast (against white) such as yellow, green or pale blue.
  • Use short, common words. Pretentious language and long words give readers the impression that the writer is neither intelligent nor credible.
  • Use rhyme to make your message memorable. In one study, rhymed aphorisms were considered more insightful than the same ideas expressed without rhymes.

Advertisers have used these methods for decades, and it can be discouraging to acknowledge that people are so easily misled and manipulated. What all of these tactics have in common is that they make things easy for us: We find things believable when we use our quick-impression mode, and the quick impression is our default mode of decision making. It saves a lot of energy (and works well enough most of the time) if we can skip the work of analyzing an argument for holes, avoid the struggle to keep an idea in the forefront of our minds while we judge its plausibility, and avert any strain in reading or interpreting the message.

Cognitive Strain

Back to that riddle in the opener:
When does a hard-to-read font lead to better comprehension?
Answer: When you want people to stop and think.

Also in Kahneman’s book are explorations of cognitive strain and cognitive ease. He describes results for a Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). An example of the type of puzzle in the CRT:

If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?*

100 minutes   OR    5 minutes

Experimenters gave the test in two formats: Half the subjects saw the test in a fuzzy, gray, small typeface—legible, but hard to read. The other half saw the test in a normal font. The number of people who made at least one error in the CRT was 90% in the normal-font test and only 35% in the hard-to-read version.

In other words, performance improved (a lot!) with the bad font.

The strain just to read the questions helped test-takers avoid being misled by the (incorrect) answer that leaps out as intuitively right. The ease of reading something can lull us into going with the first answer that comes to mind. When we strain, physically, to read something, we have also recruited a part of us that is willing to strain to really think—slowly and carefully.


To my mind, there are two ways to look at the results in the Baskerville–Comic Sans typeface experiment by Errol Morris.

One idea is that readers want a font that matches the tone of the message. Comic Sans for conveying scientific results doesn’t work. Baskerville, with its long history and use in academia, has an accessible yet serious feel. For factual statements that persuade, Baskerville makes sense.

The other way to look at the results has to do with cognitive ease and cognitive strain. When we’re faced with a statement presented as fact—particularly when we don’t have expertise in the subject—how do we evaluate the truth of that statement? In general, we go the easy way, the way it seems to us: we allow the presentation of the statement, the word choices, legibility, typeface, colors, and all the other associations we make (mostly) unconsciously to meld into an overall impression.

Comments welcome.

* Answer: 5



4 thoughts on “Truth, Typefaces, and Thinking

  1. Interesting that this post is in Helvetica Neue. Wondering how that stacks up in the credibility arena? This article appears to apply mostly to the printed word versus the digital world. It would be interesting to learn if the same principles apply on the Web.

    • Two of the experiments/anecdotes are print-based, but the survey/experiment by Errol Morris was done on the web–that’s the one where Baskerville did well. I know that the typefaces that provide optimal legibility and reading speed are different for print than for the web. But it seems to me the basic principles regarding quick impressions and the “feel” of a given typeface apply regardless of format. The principles are about human behavior, perception and cognition–factors that remain regardless of the format. Technology, on the other hand, is widely variable and changes rapidly. A recent newsletter from Nielsen covers a lot ground on the topic of web typography, including major changes in screen technology, legibility of typefaces on screens, and recommendations:

  2. Pingback: Words are powerful « To Inform is to Influence

  3. Pingback: The 7 deadly sins of résumé design | b.Logictive

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