Filmmaker Errol Morris, writing for The New York Times, writes about people’s tendency to trust some fonts more than others — particularly the 18th-century typeface Baskerville.
First, Morris starts with the fonts no one takes seriously. The font equivalent of a monkey pissing in his own mouth, or an Adam Sandler film, or the show Work It. You guessed it — Comic Sans. Look at the examples below: There’s not one shred of doubt that the following sentence is true. Gold does absolutely have an atomic number of 79. Yet you’re more likely to believe the middle one.
Why? It’s set in Georgia. Georgia has serifs. Serifs are serious.
Consider this college student, who switched between three fonts for nearly 100 essay assignments and found that his Times New Roman papers earned an A– average; Trebuchet, B–; and Georgia, A.
The team of researchers that presented its findings on the Higgs boson particle using the font Comic Sans got reamed for it on Twitter and elsewhere by everyone over age 8. Why? It’s not like the science was any less science-y. It’s not like the facts were any less fact-y. But Comic Sans is so ridiculous that the actual letters weakened the message.
“The conscious awareness of Comic Sans promotes — at least among some people — contempt and summary dismissal,” Morris writes. (That can’t be denied, whether or not you personally “like” Comic Sans.)
“But is there a font that promotes, engenders a belief that a sentence is true?”
I picked a passage from David Deutsch’s second book, “The Beginning of Infinity” — a passage about “unprecedented safety” — and embedded it in my quiz for The Times, “Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?”
If a one-kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so.
Do you think Deutsch’s claim is true? Is it true that “we live in an era of unprecedented safety”?
( ) Yes: The claim is true
( ) No: The claim is false
How confident are you in your conclusion?
( ) Slightly confident
( ) Moderately confident
( ) Very confident
Here are the (weighted) results:
David Dunning at Cornell sums up the findings:
Baskerville is different from the rest. I’d call it a 1.5% advantage, in that that’s how much higher agreement is with it relative to the average of the other fonts. That advantage may seem small, but if that was a bump up in sales figures, many online companies would kill for it. The fact that font matters at all is a wonderment.
Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.
So the typeface matters. We can see why, even if no one can explain it.
If it interests you, this page is set in Helvetica 16 pt. It’s on the large side because it’s easier to read that way, and it’s a sans-serif font (rather than Georgia, which Gawker and many others use, and which won that college student all those A’s) because we wanted our vibe to seem more casual, and also because we liked our serif headlines and wanted some variety. Personally, I find Baskerville to be pretentious as hell.[NYT]