In search of the fonts of all knowledge

LAST year, experiments at the Large Hadron Collider unveiled a fundamental aspect of reality: Comic Sans is the most divisive font in the world. When physicist Fabiola Gianotti announced the possible discovery of the Higgs boson in July, her presentation slides were dominated by the rounded typeface. Reactions ranged from outrage to calls for it to be renamed Comic Cerns.

LAST year, experiments at the Large Hadron Collider unveiled a fundamental aspect of reality: Comic Sans is the most divisive font in the world. When physicist Fabiola Gianotti announced the possible discovery of the Higgs boson in July, her presentation slides were dominated by the rounded typeface. Reactions ranged from outrage to calls for it to be renamed Comic Cerns.

The fuss illustrates a home truth: that there's a lot more to typography than meets the eye. In fact, certain fonts can elicit surprising effects on readers - they influence memory, attention and even political views. So how to spot these manipulative characters?

Typeface designers have always understood that fonts can subtly affect readers, and go to a lot of trouble to hone their creations. "I don't envy them," says Domenica Genovese, a graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland. For one thing, they must ensure that every possible pairing of letters works aesthetically. "If just one pair doesn't work, they have to start from scratch."

Part of the rationale for such efforts is readability. Even subtle differences in a font's appearance can slow a reader down, as Cyril Burt at University College London and his team discovered in 1955. They asked children to read passages in various "workhorse" fonts that populate books, newspapers and magazines. Although some of these fonts look practically identical to the untrained eye, differences soon emerged. Bodoni, for instance, took longer to read than Times New Roman.

It would be easy to assume that legibility also makes it easier to remember what you read, but in 2010 we discovered otherwise.

Danny Oppenheimer at Princeton University and colleagues asked people to memorise a printed list of 21 features that characterised three species of fictional alien. The team found that although groups presented with the list in an ornate font had a harder time reading it, they remembered far more details about the aliens than groups who read the same information in a plain typeface such as Times New Roman. Oppenheimer later found the same effect among school students - they retained course materials better when it came packaged in a brow-furrowing font.

A font that is more awkward to read might also subtly influence your perception of your own abilities. At least, that is what was hinted at in a small study in 2008 by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwartz at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

They asked a group of people to review two descriptions of an exercise routine - one in the common and plain font Arial, the other in the more difficult-to-read Brush Script, which is meant to evoke painted letters. When questioned afterwards, the participants reported that the exercise would take longer and feel more of a chore when set out in Brush Script than in the easy Arial.

When Song and Schwartz asked other groups to read a recipe printed in Mistral, a font that apes cursive handwriting, the readers felt that preparing the dish would take longer and require a higher level of skill than when it was printed in Arial.

Hard-to-read fonts may affect our views in other ways, too. We are often prone to interpreting information based on our existing world view rather than by weighing up the evidence in front of us - an effect called confirmation bias.

To explore whether fonts could influence this effect, psychologist Jesse Lee Preston of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asked a group of self-identified liberals and conservatives to read an identical argument in favour of capital punishment. Those who digested it in an easy font were more likely to report a view that reflected their instinctive political leaning than the group given the text in a difficult typeface, who described the argument as complicated and subtle.

In a second experiment, participants were asked to read fake court documents for a mock trial. When the documents were in more awkward fonts, they were more likely to disregard irrelevant information. Preston speculates that making the information harder to read forces people to give things more thought and attention.

That makes sense to Oppenheimer, and could also help to explain why a hard-to-read font can prime us to think an exercise routine or recipe is difficult. Stumbling over trickier type can alert you to the idea that you might not have mastery over the material you are reading, he argues.

The idea that switching from easy to difficult typefaces triggers different cognitive processes ties in with evidence from brain activity scans conducted by Stanislas Dehaene at the College de France in Paris and colleagues. His team watched people's brain activity as they read a series of words that became harder to decipher.

When reading is easy, we skip the individual letters and instead turn the task over to the section of the brain devoted to pattern recognition. But when we trip over a word, it forces the brain to engage a different processing area: the dorsal parietal cortex, where the letter-by-letter reading mechanism is based, says Dehaene. This area has also been linked with attention and memory.

So what does that tell us about Comic Sans? Oddly enough, it lends ammunition to those who might support its use in physics presentations. Despite the font's simplistic, hand-lettered appearance, the people in Oppenheimer's study reported finding Comic Sans trickier to read than Times New Roman or Arial. So a Comic Sans fan might argue that using it to announce the Higgs boson could have nudged people into paying more attention.

Still, choosing a font with less baggage might have been prudent. "Comic Sans, like any other font design, has a personality. This design is friendly and a bit childish-looking," says Mark Solsburg at FontHaus, an online font store based in Ann Arbor. "It's appropriate for children's books and fast-food menus."

Oppenheimer goes further. "This was a massive scientific discovery," he says. "Many people think it deserved gravitas. Using Comic Sans was like showing up to a funeral in a Hawaiian shirt."

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