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WTF? How Typography Hacks the Brain

Updated: Apr 5

Helvetica, Arial, and Comic Sans all walk into a bar. The bartender looks at Comic Sans and says, “Sorry, we don’t serve your type here.” WTF?

What the font, I mean. Fonts are important. Do you think a font impacts your motivation, decisions or even your emotional reactions to the words you read? You bet they do. People have very different reactions, feelings, and associations with different font types, and the font has a powerful influence on the way we interpret the words.

Typography defines the collective features that make up the style of the letters including:

· Font style/Typeface (Sans-Serif, Serif, Monospace, etc.)

· Font size

· Letter spacing

· Letter thickness

You could say that typography is what language feels like. For example, consider these three typefaces expressing the exact same content. Does it feel like three different people with different personalities are delivering the content?

Different fonts create different feelings about the same text.
Different fonts create different feelings about the same text.

Everything we read in print or online is influenced by the font we see. Font psychology examines the connection between those symbols on the page or screen and how our brain processes and remembers them.

Font psychology is the study of how typography influences perception, decision-making and emotional cues. Think of font as the personality of the words.

Font psychology
Font psychology

Even our behavior is influenced by font. Psychologists gave two groups of 20-year-old students copies of an exercise routine and asked them to estimate how long the routine would take them to complete and how likely they were to do the exercises. Each group had the same routine just printed in a different font.

One group read the instructions in standard Arial and the other group read them in Mistral, a paintbrush style that is less familiar and harder to read. Do you think the different fonts impacted their motivation to exercise? It did! The students who read the instructions in Arial estimated the routine would take 8.2 minutes to complete while those who read the instructions in Mistral estimated almost twice as long at 15.1 minutes. As the researchers had anticipated, when the exercise instructions were easier to read, participants were more motivated to do them!

In a second experiment, students were provided with a recipe detailing how to prepare sushi. As before, half of the group received a recipe typed in an easy-to-read font while the remaining students received a recipe typed in a difficult to read font. The were asked how difficult they thought it would be to make the sushi. Those who read the recipe in the font that was easier to read thought it would be easier to make and were more motivated to make it.

Font psychology

Easy-to-Read Fonts Are Not Always the Best to Use

Before you toss out all of the complex fonts, there are some good reasons to use them. Scientists have discovered that the rules for recall are different. The ultimate font is one that is neither too hard to read nor too easy to read. Complex fonts that are difficult to read are often dismissed. there is a tendency to skim through fonts that are easy to read without paying close attention. Fonts that are “just right” have the “desirable difficulty” to challenge the brain and that makes the content memorable.

In addition, if you want to give the impression that a great deal of effort or skill is involved with whatever you’re talking about, a more complex font is best. For example, if you’re describing an expensive product, a font that’s arduous to read will make the audience more receptive to the idea that what you’re selling takes a ton of hard work to create.

This is part of the reason why expensive restaurants often use especially hard-to-read typography in their menus. One study suggests that typography also influences the way diners perceive a restaurant meal. In one of the experiments, researchers compared the responses of subjects exposed to menu descriptions typed in a simple Arial font with responses from those exposed to identical dish descriptions in a harder-to-read Mistral font. Subjects in the latter group were more likely to conclude that the dish required great skill to prepare and, thus, was worth a higher price.

For example, which menu would you expect to find in an upscale, expensive restaurant, a casual bistro, and a hospital cafeteria?

Menu fonts have a powerful impact on our expectations of the meal.
Menu fonts have a powerful impact on our expectations of the meal.

But be careful... "fancy fonts and small print may suggest that you're sophisticated, fancy and highbrow, but also pretentious and unapproachable," says Aaron Allen, founder and CEO of the Quantified Marketing Group, a restaurant design and marketing company based in Orlando, Florida. Allen says he recently boosted a barbecue restaurant's sales 17% recently just by making its menu typography more readable, not less.


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