Open Associates


A student’s blog recently peeked the interest of a New York Times journalist when the student suggested that the font he used to present his essays affected the grade he scored.

The student revealed that of 52 essays written over the course of a year, all written with equal effort and graded by the same tutor, half had received an A grade the rest an A- or B-. The only variable was the choice of font, the A and A- fonts all used serif fonts (Georgia and Times New Roman respectively) and the B- used a sans serif font Trebuchet.

We all know that we are influenced in a variety of different ways and that some of these influences remain in the subconscious. Could typefaces be one of them? The New York Times ran an experiment to test the theory.

Readers were simply asked to identify if the statement ‘Gold has an atomic number of 79’ was true or false. The statement was shown in one of six typefaces: three serifs (Baskerville, Computer Modern or Georgia) or three sans-serifs (Trebuchet, Helvetica or Comic Sans).

The paper found that Baskerville (a traditional serif font) made statements the most believable, while Comic Sans (a hideous sans-serif that looks like a childs chalkboard writing) was the least believable and could even have a negative effect on believability.

To designers, these results aren’t hugely surprising as we learn that traditional serif fonts are more formal, trustworthy and more readable for long sections of text. Sans-serifs are informal, cleaner, and generally perceived as more accessible.

Another much larger study on more than 2 million people measured clickthrough rates (CTR) across the mobile web.

By measuring the change in CTR on the ads, the study showed the impact a typeface had on a person’s likelihood to click on a mobile advert. Again, three serif and three sans-serif typefaces were used.

The sans serif fonts all performed relatively the same; Arial (+4.3%), Helvetica (0%) and Verdana (0%). The biggest user change came from the serif faces with Garamond (-15%), Georgia (+3%) and Times New Roman (+15%).

Times New Roman was the clear winner and the agency conducting the test is now considering switching the default font for their mobile ads’ from Helvetica to Times New Roman. This would potentially mean a double digit increase in clicks – all from a simple change in typefaces.

The big loser was Garamond but any designer worth their salt could have told them that in advance as, with one of the smallest x heights of any font, it is notoriously difficult to read. It’s safe to say that Claude Garamond didn’t have the mobile web in mind when he first crafted the font some 500 years ago.

Serif fonts can clearly help influence our decisions but its equally important to ensure strong legibility particularly so in digital advertising where your ad may have only fractions of a second to get noticed and read.

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