Comic Sans is the proverbial red-headed step child of typefaces. But beyond being derided for its cutesy looks and people’s penchant for using it in inappropriate communications, a recent “experiment” conducted by filmmaker Errol Morris in a piece he wrote for NYT.com shows that perception of the font can cause readers to do more than snicker. It may cause them to question your facts and affect whether they believe what you’ve written at all, he concludes in a follow-up.
We all know that we are influenced in many, many ways — many of which we remain blissfully unaware of. Could typefaces be one of them? Could the mere selection of a typeface influence us to believe one thing rather than another? Could typefaces work some unseen magic? Or malefaction?
Don’t get me wrong. The underlying 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?
To test this, he wrote a post in which a script changed the typeface of an identical passage and then asked readers (apparently more than 45,000 of them) to take a quiz asking whether they believed it to be true. The fonts tested were Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet.
In case you’re wondering, with the help of some outside data analysis, he found Baskerville far and away to be the most believable. Comic Sans came in dead last. Want to know why? Skip to the results near the end of his follow-up post, or read the entire analysis in another post, towards the end.
It used to be, readers on screen had one system font. Now, anyone can be a typeface designer. You can jazz up your resume, email, website and printed documentation with as many or as few as you choose. While variety is nice, and you can’t always fall back on Helvetica when you want to give your stories or headlines oomph, keep in mind the choice could affect your credibility. Recent web browsers have given designers to the ability to embed font-faces directly into their site, so even those visitors without the benefit of the installed font can enjoy the view with their chosen typeface. Meanwhile, lots of bloggers and journalists are outputting multimedia packages or infographics of their own designs, which is great. This is just an interesting reminder to choose your fonts wisely.
(H/T Co.Design for pointing me to this piece.)