The importance of typography in design


Graphic designers have always used typography to convey sentiments in the written language. Channelling emotions, moods and personality have obvious implications for marketing, advertising, and the persuasive literature.

Film maker, author and typography enthusiast Errol Morris says: “The truth of the sentence ‘Gold has an atomic number of 79’ is not dependent on the typeface in which it is written. The sentence is true regardless of whether it is displayed in Helvetica, Georgia or even the much-maligned Comic Sans. But are we more inclined to believe that gold has an atomic number of 79 if we read it in Georgia, the typeface of The New York Times online, rather than in Helvetica?”

Multiple experiments have demonstrated how typefaces can influence a reader. In the blog The Secret Life of Fonts, author Phil Renaud explain how he had written 52 essays. 11 set in Times New Roman, 18 in Trebuchet MS and the remaining 23 in Georgia. The Times New Roman papers earned an average grade of A-, the Trebuchet papers could only muster a B-, and the Georgia essays gained a solid A.

This got him wondering why that was. Renaud’s results are anecdotal, but is there an experiment that could decide this once and for all?

An experience, created with the New York Times, was built around a passage by physicist David Deutsch on the unlikelihood that Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid. Respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement and how confident they felt in that conclusion. But the poll was a ruse to get at the real question: how does typography influence our perception of truth? Unknowingly, the participants read the passage in one of six randomly assigned typefaces – Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. 100,000 people clicked on the link, and over 45,000 took the quiz.

The researchers compared the results across typefaces, the passage in Baskerville engendered the most agreeable response while without surprise the text in Comic Sans generated the least agreeable responses.

Does that mean we should abandon all of our favourite fonts and worship before the holy altar of Baskerville? Of course not. Before settling on a typeface we should examine our customer theory and carefully consider what we know about our audience.

On July 4 2012, CERN announced its evidence for the existence of the Higgs Boson in Comic Sans. Within minutes of the news breaking, ‘Comic Sans’ was trending on Twitter, with the majority of tweeters expressing their disgust at such an important announcement being conveyed this way. People were blown away by the fact that a team made up of some of the most brilliant people in the world believed that Comic Sans was an appropriate font for such a historic occasion. But could this have been by design? Didn’t this generate more interest from the general public than it would have if published in a more conventional typeface?

Further experimentation has been undertaken to determine the implication of typography in perception. IBM published the results of an experiment designed to obtain data about how different typefaces perform for different type of product. Four conventional web fonts were picked:

They were applied to four different types of websites: a bank, a news site, a fitness website and a clothes shop. The study was a survey of 73 participants from 17 countries. The participants were randomly shown four versions of each site, each version using one of the 4 different typefaces.

Each person was asked which of the four versions appeared to be the most trustworthy, the easiest to use, and the most appealing. Baskerville was voted most trustworthy but least easy to use, while the sans serifs were voted easiest to use.

The numbers are compelling, but what is even more interesting is how the performance of the typefaces varies between the different websites.

– For the banking site, Baskerville appears to be the most trustworthy but the least easy to use.

– For the news site, Baskerville is again the most trustworthy, but this time it’s also the most appealing. Helvetica is voted easiest to use.

– On the fitness site, Fira Sans is the most trustworthy and the easiest to use, and surprisingly Baskerville is rated the least trustworthy typeface.

– On the Clothes shop site, Helvetica is considered easiest to use, most appealing and trustworthy.

– Roboto Slab performs badly in every category. And again, Baskerville is deemed least easy to use.

Many factors can come into consideration when it comes to choosing a typeface, what the results of these experiments tells us is that not only can typography make a real difference to the way users experience the products we design but also that it influences each product differently.

Designers’ intuition and experience, as well as research and data collected by the marketing team, allow us to carefully study each typographic choice in-depth for an optimal selection. For example, when creating the new brand for Keith Prowse, we looked at hundreds of competitors, clients and others in the industry compiled by the marketing team, and the designers analysed how different fonts would reflect on Keith Prowse’s brand specifically. Keith Prowse wanted to convey their values of confidence, trustworthiness and innovation, so we ultimately selected the Gotham font family. Its strong aesthetic and stable web applicability make it the perfect vehicle to communicate these values. Any other font would have communicated something entirely different, making the overall brand far less effective.

So, be cautious of your audience when choosing fonts, whether it’s an essay or a commercial website. You never know just how loudly a font speaks.