We all use fonts, almost every day. Font is just one of the many powerful tools designers use to visually communicate a message. Some say that type is only as powerful as the words it displays, but I would argue that type is much more than a mere vessel for written copy. Fonts and typefaces convey feelings and sentiments in the same way as music or colour.
For most people this emotional message is something they communicate subconsciously — sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it very wrong. For most of us in the design world, font choice is intentional — at least on some level. This choice can be dictated by many factors: sometimes it’s a brand guideline, perhaps we just really like how it looks, or maybe we’ve simply succumbed to the general consensus that certain fonts are better than others (which would explain the overuse of Helvetica). Whatever the deciding factor, a choice is made. Understanding the psychology of how people perceive type will help you to communicate your message more effectively.
Fonts have feelings, too
We, as human beings, are naturally inclined to project our real world emotional experiences onto the material objects we encounter. We take any opportunity to anthropomorphize — it’s human nature. This means we subconsciously look for human characteristics in inanimate items, like letterforms.
For example, we generally tend to perceive fonts with a rounded build, open forms, or softer angles to be more approachable and friendly. This is because those qualities match our physical expressions when we smile. Smiling makes our face more rounded and it opens up our overall body language. In contrast to smile-like fonts, we see fonts with heavier, sharper angles as more stern or serious. These fonts match our facial expressions when we frown.
Another contributing factor to our emotional assessment of type is association. We grow up learning certain attributes of typographic styles based on what we see around us. As a general rule, we tend to associate serif fonts with a sense of professionalism. This is because most of the official documentation we send and receive is set in a serif font. Sans serif fonts are seen as a little less formal, but not as informal as a rounded or soft edged typeface, which we perceive as happy and friendly.
The problem with association is that it changes depending on the demographic by which the font is viewed. The growth, over recent years, of sans serif classification is rendering some of its associations as legacy, as more and more official documentation is being set in helvetica or similar neo-grotesque fonts. The rise of humanist fonts has also added an extra level of feeling to the sans serif category. Mirroring the strokes of a human hand helps add an emotional connection most geometric sans serif fonts lack.
There are, of course, many cases that break the norm, in which certain type styles have been used very differently than what might be expected — take the 2012 Olympic font, for example.
While heavily angular fonts often feel abrasive or aggressive, they can also be used to express excitement and dynamism when presented in the right context. Wolff Olins used a vibrant colour palette and a rising angle to give this font a sense of lift and positivity. In this way it starts to feel kinetic and energetic, rather than feeling abrasive and harsh.
Be mindful of the content
Psychologists Samuel Juni and Julie Gross asked 102 New York University students to read a satirical article from The New York Times. Each student was given, at random, the article printed in either Arial or Times New Roman. Afterwards, the students were asked to rate their response to what they had read. The article was rated funnier and angrier — in other words, more satirical — when it was read in Times New Roman. This teaches us how important font choice is when trying to convey a certain feeling.
Knowing that fonts have different personalities is only half the battle. The real challenge is assigning the right personality to the message at hand — matching the feel of the font to the tone of the content. In order to achieve a cohesive match, you need to make sure you understand the key message being conveyed and the audience who will be reading it. There’s a reason you don’t see tax forms set in Comic Sans, or corporate logos typeset using Arbuckle.
This Premier League logo is a great case study for this question of matching font to message.
Regardless of what you think of the lion mark, color scheme, or pattern animations (which are actually pretty great), some people seem to agree that the font is a little off. Design Studio opted for FF Mark — a geometric sans serif typeface built on rounded shapes and form. It’s friendly, fun, and inviting, but it says nothing about the culture, history, or pedigree of the English game. The lowercase characters add to that friendly feeling, distancing it even further from the grit and dominance of the sport’s oldest and most impressive league.
I’m sure the argument will be made that it was designed to feel more inclusive and inviting for international markets and new audiences — an intention it will probably achieve. But at what cost? Out of context, what would you expect this logo and wordmark to represent? “Ministry of Sound presents: Premier League, the ultimate Reggae/Trance mash-up.”
A very quick fix would be to set the wordmark in capital letters. We generally see capital letters as more powerful and dominant — something that would better suit a sporting aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with FF Mark — it’s a versatile font that draws the reader into its positive personality, so much so that you can almost see it smiling — but it’s a little more Spotify than high action sport.
So, what now?
The font world is vast, diverse, and a little daunting if you’re not really sure what you’re looking for — even for designers. Many industry professionals struggle to discern Caslon from Garamond, or fail to spot the difference between Century Gothic and Futura (FYI : its higher x-height and wider characters give it away), let alone know what fonts to use and when to use them. This is why many designers choose the same fonts over and over, picking a small selection of typefaces and using them every time. This would be fine if you only ever want to communicate the same thing.
It is important to remember that, at some point, whatever you write will be read, regardless of the font in which you choose to write it. Chances are, it will be read by somebody who thinks “Gotham” is something to do with Batman, not a typeface. It is the reader’s subconscious bias, cultural environment, and personal experience that will affect the way he or she reads and digests the information. Therefore, knowing how different typefaces make people feel will help you to match the right font to the situation at hand. If in doubt, look around and ask yourself why certain brands have used that specific font.
Learn to understand the mind of the reader, be aware of the message you’re trying to convey, and embrace your innate leaning toward anthropomorphism.