If asked the question Does font matter?, typographers and graphic designers would undoubtedly say “yes.” And the organizing committee for the London 2012 Olympic Games would probably agree—they now know that Headline 2012 is ugly.
A font’s importance increases in direct proportion to the number of people who will see it. Just sending an email to a coworker? Don’t overthink your choice of typeface. Designing a website or writing marketing materials? Then do your font homework.
Why font matters
So why does font matter? Because fonts, or typefaces, have both aesthetic and practical implications. Some fonts are better for print, other for online reading. Some typefaces look more serious, others more playful.
Some fonts are even more believable than others. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and Cornell pysychology professor David Dunning asked themselves Does font matter? The answer is indeed “yes.”
Morris and Dunning developed a fascinating experiment to test whether a statement set in a certain typeface is more believable than the same message set in a different typeface. The statement in question was about the possibility of an asteroid hitting Earth. Different readers who saw the statement were presented with different typefaces. Some read that an asteroid would hit our planet in the Baskerville font, others in Helvetica, others in Georgia, and so on.
The result of the experiment was that there was a statistically significant increase (about 2%) in people’s perception of the truth of the statement when it was presented in Baskerville rather than Helvetica. As Dunning put it, “Many online marketers would kill for a 2% advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales.”
A recent experiment indicated that people are more likely to believe a message when it is written in the Baskerville typeface than in Helvetica.
Serif or sans serif?
You may know that Times New Roman is a serif font. You may be familiar with certain font names like Gill Sans or Comic Sans (both sans serif fonts). So what’s the difference?
- Serif fonts are so named because they contain smaller lines (called serifs) that finish off the major strokes of letters.
- Sans serif (“without serif”) fonts get their name from the fact that they don’t contain these smaller lines.
- Serif fonts are more decorative and are generally better suited for print, where they can produce an elegant look.
- Sans serif fonts are plainer and generally suited for online content because they are easier to read.
More about fonts
Typography was long considered an artisan’s craft, and to some extent it still is. However, computers now allow for fast design, typesetting (word processing is probably more accurate), and printing. But just because the technology has improved doesn’t mean that designers don’t need to know which font conveys which message. After all, when designers hear the question Does font matter?, they nod knowingly—and then begin weighing the merits of Garamond or Palatino.
Check out this glossary of typography terms, see which fonts are suited for which purposes, or view some of the most recognizable corporate fonts.