Engage Your Nonprofit Audience with Better Font Choices: The Psychology of Typography

Mostly, I’m a copywriter. But as a writer, I know that writing cannot be separated from design, especially on the web. If your content isn’t clean, readable, and visually appealing, it probably won’t be read — no matter how well-written it is.

If you’re responsible for a nonprofit’s email newsletters, fundraising appeals, or website design, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about how to attract new constituents (or perhaps how to keep the ones you have). Maintaining and building upon your audience will not only lead to greater awareness of your cause — it can also result in more donations.

Further, if your organization provides educational materials to a specific population — say to those with a particular disease or condition — you’ll want to make their user experience as easy as possible, particularly if that population is prone to visual or other impairments that can make it more difficult for them to follow the information you provide.

One way to improve user experience and perhaps capture new donors is to think more carefully about your font choices. I read a fascinating piece exploring the psychology of fonts (a great article by the co-founder of oomph Mikael Cho that is definitely worth a read).

Below I outline the most important takeaways from “The science behind fonts (and how they make you feel),” and relate Cho’s key points to non-profit email and web design:

  • Ensure you aren’t causing your readers to feel unnecessarily bad: A study conducted by psychologist Kevin Larson at MIT presented two groups of people with the same article designed two different ways — one with a good design and one with a bad design.

And what happened as a result? The users who read the poorly designed article felt worse than the other group (who read the same article, but designed better). While reading the poorly designed article, some of the readers even physically frowned. The other group found the well-designed article easier to read, and they also felt good after reading it.

The takeaway for non-profits? If you look at Cho’s example in his article, you can see that the words in the poorly designed article are much more crammed together and are not spaced far enough away from the image in the article or the article’s headline. By simply spacing out the information you provide, you can ensure that you aren’t causing your readers to associate your organization with feeling bad. Again, making your readers feel better might be especially important if they are part of a population that may already be dealing with a chronic condition or disease state.

  • Make sure your font size is big enough to read easily. If your organization isn’t ready for a big change, just increasing your font size by 2px can make a big difference in readability. Cho recommends a font size larger than 12px, preferably within the 16–22px range. Importantly, Mikael also cites another study which showed that people feel a stronger emotional connection to larger fonts — a significant finding for non-profits whose funding often relies on a strong emotional connection to their cause!
  • Steer clear of overly decorative fonts. Fancy and cursive style fonts look great on wedding invitations or on logo design, but they usually aren’t appropriate for reading on the web. Rather than emphasizing decoration in your font choices, aim for easier readability. Remember that most people have limited time and receive dozens of emails per day; if they can’t easily read what you have to say, your email is likely to end up in their trash bin, and they’ll find their information elsewhere.
  • If you’re unsure of how readable your font is, try performing the Il1 test. This test is a good indicator of how easy it is to distinguish between the letters of the alphabet using your font type. If you type out, “Il1” and cannot immediately tell which is the capital ‘i’ or which is the number ‘1,’ you might want to select a different font.
  • Be familiar with the difference between serif and sans-serif fonts. If you don’t already know, the word “serif” refers to that small line you see at the end of a letter. Therefore, a “sans-serif” font does not contain that small line. For reference, the font I’m using right now is a serif font. For readability purposes, many experts recommend a sans-serif font on the web, but Mikael notes that screen resolution has improved so much in recent years that we don’t necessarily have to stick to just sans-serif fonts.
  • That brings me to my next point: think carefully about your audience. When you’re working for a non-profit, you’re likely not only desperately trying to grab the attention of donors, but you may be trying to educate a unique population of people. I said this above, but it bears repeating — if your audience consists of people with a specific condition, their ability to read or interpret information might be different from your own.

Think not only about the obvious symptoms of a disease, but also about secondary symptoms with which you might not be as familiar. Do visual impairments sometimes happen with this disease? Can cognition be affected? How about attention? Although screen resolutions have improved greatly, if you’re dealing with symptoms like these that can affect the ease of reading, it might be wise to stick with easy-to-read sans-serif fonts.

  • Consider not just font size, but line height as well. While you may have already thought about the size of your font, something you may have thought less about is the line height of your text. Line height refers to the distance between the lines of your text. Adjusting the line height can have a great impact on the readability of your materials.

In Cho’s example, he adjusts the line height to 27px. If you don’t know how to do this, you can use the style code “line-height: 27px;” to insert into the HTML of your email campaigns or the CSS of your website.

Although not specifically written for nonprofits, Cho’s article is definitely worth a read, and I highly recommend reading it in full when you get the time.

In the mean time, here are a couple of other font resources I recommend:

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