Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Psychology of Typeface

If you're new to take-out photo, you may not know that every month we focus on a theme (a "Monthly Special"). The "September Monthly Special" is all about text and photography, so today I want to look at text, not its content but its form.

Look at your handwriting. How has it evolved (or in my case, devolved) over time? Did you once dot your "i"s with circles or hearts or flowers? Unless you are a 10-year-old girl, let's hope those days are over. As a professor, I see a lot of handwriting. Occasionally, a guy will have the big loopy handwriting one might associate with a young girl, or a girl will have the condensed, sloppy handwriting more typical of a guy. The disconnect we might sense between the writer and the handwriting reveals that you don't have to be a graphologist to assign meaning to how someone crosses their "t"s or loops their "y"s.

Fonts are not much different, because whether we are conscious or not of their psychological impact, we choose them and we are judged by those choices. If a student hands in a research paper written in Comic Sans (yes, it's happened) or a CK scrapbooking font (true story, I swear), I have a much harder time taking their research seriously.

Check out the use of typeface in the four examples in my photo at the top of this post:
  • The Strapontin café signage looks friendly, quirky, and inviting.
  • The oval sign announcing that a boulangerie is closed Sundays and Mondays is full of nostalgia and suggests that the owners are probably off in Provence on those days, going to mass, picking bunches of lavender, and carding wool before winter hits.
  • On the bottom left, the little flourishes on the letters of the "Hôtel de l'Avenir"—literally "Hotel of the Future"—tell us that this is yesterday's quaint future, not some distant space age where everyone will be forced to wear unflattering unitards.
  • Finally, the bottom right, from the Concord Metro station, suggests power, sophistication, and obedient conformity.
A study published in 2006 by the Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL—Star Trek-inspired logo, anyone?) at Wichita State University tested the "personality" of 20 fonts by asking people to rate them according to lists of adjectives. Courier New, for example, was the top font for the words "conformist," "unimaginative," "dull," and "plain." What a winner. Participants described a swirly little font called "Gigi" as "creative," "exciting," and "feminine," but also "unstable," "rebel," and "impractical." Gigi sounds fun, but trust me, that girl is trouble.

A study set to appear in the October issue of Psychological Science suggests that diners are willing to pay more for food if the menu is hard to read and difficult to understand. Try the medley of berry conserves and puréed pindas on pain de mie (aka PB&J on white) It's pricey, but oh so worth it.

And if you think messing with fonts on a menu is a high-stakes game, think about the Presidential race. In March, the L.A. Times did a story on the typefaces of Obama and McCain. Obama is all about Gotham—the "it" font of 2008. Gotham is only 7 years old (Incidentally, Hillary used New Baskerville—a font with roots in the 18th century—and we see where that got her.) McCain uses Optima, the same font used in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Coincidence? The New York Times did a great piece getting reactions to that font from various experts.

Since we're on the topic of politics, what about political t-shirts? Is it appropriate to wear a pink ringer tee with a fat and happy little pink font used to spell out "Darfur"? The New England art blog "Our Daily RED" doesn't think so. They call it a "typographically irresponsible" act.

The moral of this story, or Does this font make my butt look big?
Have I made you self-conscious of your fonts? Are you afraid that your font choices will make you look immature, naive, or even typographically irresponsible? Never fear. The studies that dissect the meanings of fonts get their information from the reactions of people like you. In other words, trust your own opinions and intuition. Catastrophically wrong font choices come from a lack of forethought. If, as the saying in typographic circles goes, fonts are the clothing that words wear, then you need to make sure your words don't get dressed in the dark. Don't let your words wear flip-flops and a t-shirt to the opera. Not unless that's the look you're going for.

Still feeling unsure? Wish there were a What Not to Wear for font choices? Well, check back for a future post that will give you, if not Stacy and Clinton, well then, maybe their equivalents in the world of typography.