The Science of Fonts

This post kicks off a multi-week series of design- and communications-focused posts.

If there was a listicle titled, “26 Jobs You Didn’t Know Existed But Totally Want,” for us, “Font Researcher” would definitely rank. Even though we encounter them every day, most of us don’t think much about fonts, so it’s hard to believe folks dedicate entire careers to their study.

What exactly are font researchers studying?

In one study on The Aesthetics of Reading, Microsoft and MIT Researchers investigated the effects of typography on engagement, preference, and mood. They found people are more engaged with material set in good type, prefer good type to bad type, and are in a better mood when reading good type. Another researcher looked at the associations between fonts and senses like taste and smell and found that the right font can make food taste better. And still others have been more conventional, measuring the effect of font choice on reading comprehension, speed, and accuracy.

An article from the New Yorker rendered with good typography.
Good type from the MIT study.
An article from the New Yorker rendered with bad poor typography.
Bad type from the MIT study.

Science, meet art.

It’s clear from research that font choices can be impactful. Making those choices involves a bit of art. When planning the design of a product, we often consider how we want the product to make people feel. We’re designing a product and an experience. We can use fonts to elicit specific emotions or perceptions.

Inappropriate font choices can undermine the credibility of a product and limit its success. You can write the greatest content in the world, but if your font choice keeps people from reading it or taking it seriously, that content won’t matter.

The best font choices consider content and context. The content and experience should be congruent so the reader’s perception of the font matches the words that are written. Is the content serious or playful? Should it feel modern or vintage? Elegant or approachable?

A side-by-side comparison of two government documents rendered with good and poor typography.
Poor font choices (left) undermine the seriousness of the publication’s subject matter.
Good font choices (right) create and attractive, modern design that the viewer can trust.

What does this mean for me?

Each time we make a product, we have an opportunity to make choices that can enhance or inhibit its success. Thankfully, making good design decisions can be simple. We’ve compiled some things to keep in mind the next time you’re staring at an open font menu.

The right font should:

  • Be readable
    • Can you tell the difference between a capital “I” (eye), lowercase “l” (elle), and the number 1 (one)?
  • Match the content
    • Does the feeling evoked by the font match the seriousness or levity of the content?
  • Match the context
    • Where will the product be displayed?
    • Is there a desired goal or action it should invoke?
  • Be sans-serif for a screen and serif for print (but not always)
    • Serifs can add visual noise and be hard to read on low-resolution screens but provide a clear visual line for the eye to follow in print.
  • Capture attention and blend in as appropriate
    • Unique and ornate fonts can add visual interest and draw attention—great for headlines, not for body copy. Choose a workhorse “foundation” font for most of your content then add interest and contrast in headlines.

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