Using Fonts Effectively: Why Standardise?

We’re all aware that fonts have a psychological impact, even if we aren’t sure exactly what the impact of a particular font is. I’ve always suspected that the psychological effect translates to an effect on cognition, or learning. (Some of you reading this might say that’s obvious.) It turns out that there have been a couple of studies along these lines. I’ll soon get to that, but what I’m wondering about is: If fonts make a difference to how text is perceived, how come we don’t pay much attention to them?

In sales presentations and the like, branding and identity dictate that certain fonts should be used. Plus, “subjective” presentations actually try to harness fonts’ subliminal effects. But beyond that, readability seems to be the prime criterion in choice of font, across content categories: Slideshows for a general audience, learning content, information brochures.

When the emphasis is on “how easy it is to read the text,” people go with the safe fonts—the ones that are known to be easy to read. These are the familiar ones—Arial, Times New Roman, and so on. Or, sometimes, a designer becomes excessively creative and chooses an out-of-the-way font. What we end up looking at is either a standardised font or something “creative” that doesn’t suit the subject matter. It’s not common to find print or web material that utilises the innate value of its fonts!

An article on Wired is relevant here: A study found that students actually learnt better—in terms of both comprehension and retention—when matter was presented to them in weird fonts (compared to other students who read the same material in standard fonts).

You could take your guess about why it happened; my personal idea is that the non-standard fonts made the students pay more attention and do less skimming-over. But a study of this sort makes us think: Why should readability be the prime concern in fonts for learning (or other) material? Let’s put it this way: If there’s more to a font than meets the eye, it’s probably not fair to go the lazy way—and standardise.

Going beyond the usual fonts—Arial, Tahoma, Verdana—for your content means getting a basic knowledge of what different fonts achieve.

  • For some pointers, visit this page at Articulate.com. You’ll find resources about the impact of different fonts, how to “sort fonts by style and emotion,” and more.
  • More on the characteristics of well-known fonts here.