The Subliminal Connotations of Our Font Choices

Whenever people are communicating, there is the apparent message of the words being spoken and the underlying message coming from non-verbal cues. In a conversation, non-verbals can be eye contact, posture or tone of voice. These significant little details are a vital part of the overall message being received.

When the communication is in print, or online, the non-verbal cues are a little different. In the voice-less mediums we have layout, colors and images to support our directives. And of course, there’s typography. It’s a subtle overture, but the typefaces and font styles we utilize may actually carry subliminal connotations. Designers can play on our subconscious responses to different styles of typography to help support the main theme of any project.

Readability

There are a lot of fancy fonts out there that may be tempting. But if they sacrifice readability, it’s almost never worth it. People are far more likely to be accepting of a message that is stated clearly in both words and typeface. This is especially important if you are asking people to do something.

One study shows that, in a test group, people were more likely to make a decision when the message was easier to read. Following that philosophy, creating call-to-actions using highly readable fonts should encourage the most engagement.


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Of course, this article suggests that in some cases you might want something a little less accessible, for example if you want people to spend more at a restaurant. For many people, if something is difficult to read, the perception is that it is more difficult to do, yet in the food service world, that may mean they won’t mind paying higher prices.

Gender

Like many things in this world, even fonts can be classified as masculine and feminine. Feminine fonts can be described as fine, serifed, sleek, and elegant, and masculine fonts can be characterized as being blocky and bold.

When you analyze various collections of masculine or feminine fonts you find that these generalizations, largely, hold true.

feminine-masculine-fonts
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This insight can be used to help effectively target specific genders in marketing campaigns. Websites or advertisements that are meant to appeal to the male or female demographic can strategically utilize fonts to support that goal. Products intended for women may be well served by more elegant curving fonts while items for men could benefit from bolder more angular typefaces.

For the most part though, corporate typography tends to lean toward the more masculine fonts; as they seem to indicate a greater sense of organization and professionalism. And not surprisingly, feminine fonts are still typically the most useful for evoking pathos. I think there’s a joke about stereotypes in there somewhere but at the risk of inciting a riot, I’m just gonna leave it alone.

The Serif

The oldest debate in the world of fonts has been to serif or not to serif (take the recent Google logo redesign for example). The difference is in the tiny little brush strokes at the end of a letter. There are plenty theoretical arguments in favor of both styles, but ultimately, there doesn’t deem to be any scientific evidence that endorses the use of one over the other.

google logo redesign

Although, it does appear that most users prefer sans serif fonts for websites and email but prefer serif fonts in business documents. That means that Times New Roman might still be the standard for resumes, but Arial is better as the default for your inbox.

i shot the serif
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There’s still a lot we don’t really know about the typeface. Can the font you use make your work seem more authoritative? Perhaps there is no significant difference between the serif Georgia (my all time favorite font)and sans serif Tahoma.

But when you go a little broader and compare the gravitas of Helvetica with say, the perpetual butt of font jokes, Comic Sans, there’s a major disparity.

comic-sans-criminal

Conclusion

Font choice can be used to make as much of an impression as the words that comprise the copy. Websites or businesses that are creative or design-based may benefit from more artistic fonts. While institutions that require trust and credibility may want to look for more structured typefaces.

Some situations do naturally lend themselves to the use of a specific genres of typography. In the end though, deciding on the best font for your purpose and medium largely comes down to a matter of preference and pre-disposition. As long as your choices are readable, purposeful and appropriate for the circumstances, most decisions won’t be wrong.

Remember you don’t have to re-invent the wheel; you just need to use the existing model to propel you forward.

Comments

  • Mitchell Bona

    This is an extremely interesting
    article. I appreciate the discussion of what underlying typography messages
    actually pertains to. I understood that viewers have certain feelings, emotions,
    and associations when they see certain colors, but I also agree with the writer
    that typography generates these similar responses. An excerpt from the article
    that got my attention is when the writer mentions a study that explains how
    people were more likely to make a decision when the message was easier to read.
    I followed the link provided in the article and began to read the details of
    this study. The article written by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz in the
    February edition of The Psychologist shows that typography can significantly
    influence people’s assessment on how easy or difficult tasks are to do.

    In one of their experiments they
    tested people’s reaction to a Japanese recipe, using an easy-to-read font vs. a
    difficult one. In this case, the participants assumed that the
    difficult-to-read recipe would require more time and skill to prepare than the
    easy-to-read recipe. They also found that this may deter someone from trying
    out the recipe at home, but also might make him or her pay more for it at a
    restaurant. As a designer, it is imperative to take human psychology into
    consideration whilst using typography. This can be applied to all spectrums of
    design.

    What I personally take away from
    this article is that proper typography communicates sub-conscious messages to
    the viewer. There are countless factors that determine the feelings, emotions,
    and associations that the type produces. If the designer choses the type
    carefully and correctly, it will enhance the readability and information of the
    design.