Uh oh. You thought it was pretty safe to stick with a nice Roboto and Source Serif combo? Think again. There’s font psychology afoot.
Some things are obvious. Make your type too small and you go outside the bounds of normal human processing capabilities obviously. But, make it too big and it takes too much effort to read – the ‘word span’ has become too large and too many fixation points are required to figure out what it says. Put your lines too close together and descenders/ascenders crash, too far apart and again – too many fixation points needed. Increase the kerning a little and reading becomes easier, but go too far and you can’t see the word boundaries.
If you’re interested in the basic physiology of how we read print and an explanation of saccades and fixations, google “Eye Movements in Reading: Models and Data” by Rayner, 2008. It’s an, er, eye opener.
Turns out that your choice of font, font colour, display style can affect a myriad of things in any word driven media including:
- The perceived effort required to comply with your CTA
- The validity of your claim
- The perception of the message based on prior exposure to the font
- Perceived urgency of a scarcity-based offer and likelihood of compliance
- Brand gender
Font & Perceived Effort
How do you get more people to read your direct mail message and understand it? Use a simple and easy to read font.
Song & Schwarz had this hypothesis back in 2008 before the world went Arial. They decided to run a psychology test to determine how much time a human would expect a novel activity to take purely from reading some instructions written in different fonts.
In the first test students were asked a number of questions about a new exercise routine after reading instructions in our two hero-fonts – Arial and a more complex one (Brush, Mistral)
Those reading in Arial thought the routine would take less time and feel much more agreeable to do than those who read in the complex cont. They were also most willing to take it up in their daily routine. Interestingly, comprehension and recall remained the same for both fonts.
The experiment was repeated for a recipe and participants thought it would need way more skills when reading the complicated font.
Fonts & Compliance
Earlier in time, psychology spent much time pondering the effect of font usage on warning labels. Silver & Braun’s study showed 10pt is perceived as more readable than 8pt, and using a 2pt contrast for a heading is more effective than a 4pt contrast.
Chapanis pointed out that the perceived severity of warning decreased through the colours read, orange, yellow and white.
Edworthy & Adams joined these two concepts together and looked at how whitespace, borders, font size and colour all interacted to effect compliance. Turns out in order to make a black “signal word” as urgent as a red one in 8pt print, it needs to be 17.3pts.
And it gets more complicated…
Italics Make Offers More Urgent
Now let’s throw in some italics as Mead & Li did in 2019. They showed that right slanted fonts may increase perceived urgency amongst consumers reading the message AND significantly higher intention to act on an offer – be it a visit to a retail location, a website or a clickthrough in an email. All of this only really worked in combination with a promotional offer leveraging scarcity. Font psychology at its finest.
Message Perception & Font
Typefaces create / embody semantic associations with a brand.
Juni & Gross tested readers’ perception of a satirical piece taken from the NYT when read in Arial v Times New Roman. Times “won” – the words were perceived as funnier AND angrier than the same piece in Arial. Essentially, the font face chosen affected the judgement of the message in the reader’s mind.
Prior association with a layout and font style can be used to leverage consumer shortcuts in processing print. Exact columns could evoke a more serious businesslike tone, and a more free-flowing layout seem more playful.
If you’re interested in cultivating a particular brand gender, Grohmann’s study showed that a font can influence that for you – display fonts for male, script fonts for female.
When testing direct mail, don’t forget that subtle differences in font faces make a difference. Sometimes volumes aren’t big enough to run proper tests – in that case, make the most of the psychology work that goes before you and come up with the best assumptions you can before going to print.
The giant shoulders we stand upon:
- Song, H., & Schwarz, N. (2008). If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do: processing fluency affects effort prediction and motivation. Psychol Sci, 19(10), 986-988.
- ADAMS, A. U. S. T. I. N. S., & EDWORTHY, J. U. D. Y. (1995). Quantifying and predicting the effects of basic text display variables on the perceived urgency of warning labels: tradeoffs involving font size, border weight and colour. Ergonomics, 38(11), 2221-2237.
- CHAPANIS, A. L. P. H. O. N. S. E. (1994). Hazards associated with three signal words and four colours on warning signs. Ergonomics, 37(2), 265-275.
- Silver, N. C., & Braun, C. C. (1993). Perceived readability of warning labels with varied font sizes and styles. Safety Science, 16(5-6), 615-625.
- Juni, S., & Gross, J. S. (2008). Emotional and Persuasive Perception of Fonts. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 106(1), 35-42.
- Mead, J. A., Richerson, R., & Li, W. (2020). Dynamic Right-Slanted Fonts Increase the Effectiveness of Promotional Retail Advertising. Journal of Retailing.
- Grohmann, B. (2016). Communicating brand gender through type fonts. Journal of Marketing Communications, 22(4), 403-418.
- McCarthy, M. S., & Mothersbaugh, D. L. (2002). Effects of typographic factors in advertising-based persuasion: A general model and initial empirical tests. Psychology and Marketing, 19(7-8), 663-691.