The Science Behind Typography: What Researchers Have Found & How Designers Can Benefit

Web readers may not consciously discern a difference between the impact of a serifed font and a sans serif one, but a web designer’s choice in font style, font size, letter spacing, line spacing and even font color can spark a multitude of reactions in readers, scientific research on typography has found.

Web designers armed with knowledge of how typeface affects comprehension, readability, reader reaction and reader moods can ensure that businesses convey the right mix of message and mood when it comes to text, a key tool used in logos, product labels, ads, letterhead and virtually anything circulated by a company. 


Think typeface can’t produce a smile or a frown? Think again.

Kevin Larson, a psychologist for software giant Microsoft, has spent years probing how typeface affects reader moods. In studies published in 2006, Larson revealed that certain font styles could make readers frown by activating the corrugator supercilii muscles over their brows or make them relax by not activating that facial muscle. In short, he believes beautiful fonts — such as those with even cap spacing, symmetry, and rounded qualities — can put people in good moods while fonts perceived as displeasing can do the opposite.

Larson found that when readers were put in a good mood by typography, they read more and didn’t realize how long they were reading. This revelation, detailed fully in the research publication titled “Measuring the Aesthetics of Reading,” can be useful for web designers wanting to incite joy or to provoke anger or other emotions through their web copy. Furthermore, it can be used to persuade readers to stay on a website longer and to be more receptive to marketing messages or calls to action due to appealing typeface.

Of course, the idea of what is appealing in typography is subjective, even when relying on spacing, symmetry and curvaceousness as guides. A 1998 study done by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University emphasized just how subjective aesthetics in typography can be when research subjects were asked to choose between Verdana, Georgia and the ever-popular Times New Roman; subjects choose Georgia as a preferred font style, but also has strong inclinations toward Verdana.

This suggests web designers should be willing to do their own sample testing with a small group resembling the target audience when introducing new websites or brand typography for clients.

Creativity & Cognitive Performance

Elegant and pretty fonts are about more than aesthetics and producing a good mood. Apparently, the moods inspired by fonts can carry over to subsequent tasks, affecting performance.

The Larson research shows that people exposed to certain “good mood” fonts experience a period of creative output, higher cognitive focus and more productivity after exposure to that font. Mental processes had more speed and clarity. Imagine how this could affect workers and customers. Font and typeface could conceivably be used to cause readers to subconsciously link certain Web sites with a sense of inspiration and desire to want to act or create. They can potentially be used to pull readers in and increase return visits or customer loyalty. These are all possibilities corporate web designers must consider.

More than lines and squiggles on a screen or page, typography is indeed an affective user interface, having continual influence on emotions and mentality.

Legibility & Readability

The most common typography research involves examining how typeface influences legibility and readability.

Legibility studies, which explore how easily individual letters and characters can be distinguished without creating eye strain, and readability studies, which measure how well readers can comprehend the text, date back as far as 1929. In that year, Miles A. Tinker and colleague Donald G. Paterson published research showing that the 10-point font size was most optimal for reading. They also found that both serifed styles and sans serif styles could be understood equally, suggesting font styles don’t greatly affect reading comprehension. In 2006, Larson confirmed the same thing: that even if readers’ moods were affected by different font styles, their ability to actually comprehend the text was not.

These findings offer assurance and freedom to web designers, urging them to innovate new styles and experiment with features. This is important because designers often work for clients who covet distinctive and unique typography in order to create a signature look or brand.

Making Research Practical for the Everyday Web Designer

As clients turn to web designers to create an online presence for companies, designers can rely on both old and new research to design pages that are not only functional and useful, but also beautiful, mood-shifting and perhaps even performance-enhancing. Typeface can be fluid and unbound by rules since research shows that messages in text survive font changes and can usually be understood no matter the size or style.

About the author: Dirk Reagle has commanded a large following and won several freelance writing awards over his years of service. When he’s not writing, you can find Dirk reviewing mobile web designers in Chicago or working on his racquetball skills.

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