Does typography have measurable impact?
October 3, 2011 10:11 PM   Subscribe

Are there real world examples where typography made/makes a measurable difference?

I guess I sort of take it for granted there are, but someone was claiming typography wasn't a field with real world impact. I think it's so obviously wonderful it blindsided me, so help me win this debate! I mean to include type design in this as well.

Quantified measurements are the only thing that will finally put this argument to rest. "X% more people read the article" or "%Y less bought the widget" or "Z fewer errors per lunar cycle". Yes, there are Larger Points that can be made, but they won't convince this person until basic value is demonstrated - preferably business or technical. Of course you can't put a price or metric on all (or even most) aspects of experience or value - but let's focus on some examples where you can.

Academic papers, business articles, whatever. Advertising, publishing, wherever. I just can't believe typography has no "real world" or "historical" measurable impact and am shocked - shocked I tell you - to realize I have no examples to the contrary.
posted by freebird to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Not the most rigorous study around, but this suggests academic essays with serif typefaces get higher grades, on average, than sans-serif ones.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:19 PM on October 3, 2011

A dyslexic colleague said that it's much harder for them to read fonts with serifs - read here for more info. In fact, there's more to it than just the serif issue.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:21 PM on October 3, 2011

Here's one example
posted by sanko at 10:22 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Clearview was developed as the new typeface for highway signage in the US. My understanding is that it was designed to be maximally legible under a variety of environmental conditions.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 10:30 PM on October 3, 2011

The documentary Helvitica may provide some answers. Been a long time since I've seen it but as I recall, it talks about its simplicity and impact.

On preview... what they said.
there's stories about states changing the font on road signs.
posted by hot_monster at 10:33 PM on October 3, 2011

Pretty much every company spends a lot of money on designers who fuss over typography. Either these companies are seeing a return on their investment thus proving the validity of typpgraphy, or they all happen to be stupid (EVERY company). You may not be able to provide the business case justifications, but you can infer their existence.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:46 PM on October 3, 2011

Make that person try to read a Wikipedia article in Comic Sans.
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:02 PM on October 3, 2011

freebird: " "...X% more people read the article" or "%Y less bought the widget" or "Z fewer errors per lunar cycle". Yes, there are Larger Points that can be made, but they won't convince this person until basic value is demonstrated - preferably business or technical. "

Well, this person is being a fool. Those aren't the measures of value here. It's "%X noticed the ad or, better, the ad next to the article; or %p remember the Logo/Brand. And I can't cite studies, but it's clear topography does make a difference. Ask him to think of the brands whose logos or mastheads he can remember, ask him how many are in New Times Roman. (I like NTR and use it a lot, but wouldn't for a logo, that is why it's so good for the stuff in between the ads; and Typographers know that.)
posted by Webnym at 11:02 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Before you go to a lot of work here, something to consider is that there are people who believe that establishing a brand identity is an important real world thing, and some people who believe that it's just screwing around. If you're going to debate with someone who's in the second camp, you better have an example where switching to a different font cured a disease or something.

This is one of those never wrestle a pig in the mud kind of things.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:05 PM on October 3, 2011

Webnym and The Kid are right. If he doesn't believe typography is important, it's going to be difficult to convince him. Typography, good or bad, is the basis for all written communication. It's impossible for it not to have an impact.

This is like asking why it's important to understand how to shoot a proper photograph.
posted by Typographica at 11:19 PM on October 3, 2011

Jakob Neilsen reports on how typography affects reading speed, and does so quantitatively. Unfortunately, a quick google of his site doesn't show any good numbers, but he reports quite clearly from quantitative studies various results: serif fonts read more quickly in print, sans serif on low resolution monitors; too small text impairs reading speed; and insufficient contrast also hurts reading speed (e.g., Wired's pink text on green background).
posted by fatbird at 11:32 PM on October 3, 2011

You can save on ink costs by choosing a font with less coverage.

I threw some font names into Google Scholar expecting to find something about, say, typography and reading speed online, and what I found was one direction you maybe shouldn't take this discussion: "Overall, there are no statistically significant reading or retention differences between [Georgia and Helvetica]."

I did find one old study that said there was a difference for children: serifs may be an issue for them, and they strongly prefer Comic Sans, even in their textbooks. (Maybe that's for the same reasons dyslexics dislike serifs, but maybe it's because Comic Sans is just plain fun.)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:36 PM on October 3, 2011

If you take the human out of the equation, the font affects the success rate of optical character recognition by a computer. In the early days the special OCR-A and OCR-B fonts were necessary. There's a parallel with magnetic ink character recognition and the associated MICR fonts. See also the Westminster font.
posted by XMLicious at 11:47 PM on October 3, 2011

If he doesn't believe typography is important, it's going to be difficult to convince him.

Heh, this sounds like an argument I've heard religious people use when arguing with the non-religious, simply swap "typography is important" for "god is real". The reason it's hard to convince someone to believe in god is because there is no evidence that such a being exists. What is the reason that it's hard to convince someone typography is important? Is it because of a similar lack of evidence that it is?

I tend to be in the camp of the OP's friend. I concede that typography makes things look nice, and that specific typography can be recognizable in things like logos. I find it hard to believe that there is any significant difference in mainstream perception for things like the difference between Arial and Helvetica, which seems to be some sort of religious issue among graphic designers.

I think if you want to try and convince people like your friend (or me) that typography matters, you're going to have to pick some more specific scenarios. Where does it matter?

For reading speed? That seems not the case from info posted so far.

For recognizability? It seems obviously true that Microsoft's logo is far more recognizable in it's current font than it would be if each time it was typeset an arbitrary typeface was chosen at random. It does not seem obviously true that the font currently in use is any more recognizable than any other would have been if it was standardized upon instead.

For aesthetics? It makes a difference, measurably, but it's a subjective difference that may or may not affect the people reading it.

What are yo trying to show, and among the things that you *can* show, are they significant enough to count as "real world impact"?

I would actually be curious to hear about what it means to "design a font for maximum legibility". Exactly what is the design process for something like this? How many studies were done on legibility while refining the design? What were the criteria for "legible"? I would actually find this interesting to read about, but I've never actually heard any story like it. It makes me doubt that anyone actually does it and instead simply picks pleasing shapes for letters and declares them legible. I may be wrong, but I've never seen any evidence for that.

Tell me about the last font you designed and how you decided on that design. Or tell me about the last time you chose a font, what impact you were trying to make with it, and how you verified that it actually had the impact you credited it with? Can you do any of those things?

I get the impression that most of the people who think typography is important have never actually designed typography, and generally make their choice for a particular typeface for any project based on a general gut feeling of "yeah, that looks good".
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:24 AM on October 4, 2011

Dyslexie: the font for dyslexics.

The amount of people going into marketing and design as careers are a testament to how valuable they are and always have been. Has he ever had a jingle in his head? Same thing.

The ROI for hiring an expensive agency or freelancer is your audience feeling something towards your product that they didn't feel in a way they did before. You can't measure it in numbers, and type isn't the only thing involved; but it's a very important aspect if you play your cards right.

If you want to be able to cite someone (albeit someone wrong), Adrian Shaughnessy, author of the hugely popular How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul, wrote an article recently basically saying graphic designers are doing a disservice to society by making things pretty and attractive, and that's what fueled the the London riots. So take that as you will too.
posted by june made him a gemini at 12:30 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some programmers prefer a font which has very distinct characters and prevent confusion, e.g. (0|O), (,|.), (1|l). This can save a ton of time when trying to find a typo in a script.
posted by benzenedream at 1:12 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ok, Tyler, I'll bite. Though I'm sure you agree that what is convincing to a designer is not always convincing to an engineer, and vice versa.

As a start, it might help to focus the question, which is quite broad and general and maybe misusing some terms that could confuse things. So a point of distinction:

Type design is the craft of creating typefaces (the design) and fonts (the vessels for the design).

Typography is the use of type in graphic design.

Of course these two crafts are interrelated, but definitions are important for clarity. And maybe we can start with which of these two fields the asker is most interested in.

Second, freebird, can you tell us more about the person you're aiming to influence? What is their profession? What are their areas of interest?
posted by Typographica at 1:14 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

[Tempting and interesting as it might be to expand on the question, comments here need to stick to the measurable/quantifiable examples the OP is looking for]
posted by taz at 1:30 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to identify the question so I can attempt to answer it.
posted by Typographica at 2:00 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

English might not be a good language to use for an example. It uses only the simplest, Latin-est letterforms. Chinese might make the issues more obvious; I'm no expert, but I recall reading that having bad penmanship can get you fired there.

Anyway, what counts as a "specific, measurable" difference? Does fashion make such a difference? Certainly a person who's wearing fashionable clothes will get more attention, and a person who's not wearing a tailored suit might have trouble getting into a business meeting.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:14 AM on October 4, 2011

I think the problem with this question isn't in finding a measurable impact, but in establishing causation between the typography and the impact. It's much like with advertising--you can never really prove that The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is responsible for Old Spice's current popularity, but brands that don't advertise, or that make cheap generic commercials with some voiceover dude telling you about their product, don't tend to sell as well.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:19 AM on October 4, 2011

This is essentially a philosophical question, and boils down to "do aesthetics matter"? There is no easy answer to this question. However, even from a purely utilitarian standpoint it is pretty well-established (and easily demonstrated) that some fonts are easier to read than others under a given set of circumstances, so that would be my angle of attack. The examples above about font design for road signage are excellent.
posted by Scientist at 5:45 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, I work in a museum, and when we design an exhibition we prototype labels with different typefaces and colors - not only for visitor preference, but to see what best catches their eye, what is most easily readable, and what best expressed the content of the show. This is a more laborious process than you might imagine, because typefacts can actually be culturally insensitive/stereotypical - like, if you're having an exhibition of Chinese art, you really don't want Chinese-restaurant-menu typography. Unless you do, because you're trying to evoke an ironic, pop-culture feel.

Right now we're working on a show of American Indian artwork and it's been really tricky finding a font that's energetic and contemporary but still speaks to Native American art traditions, but without being stereotypical or calling handcraft to mind.

So, yes.
posted by Miko at 6:21 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

The book Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works covers a great deal of the importance of typography. Chapter 3 is available as a PDF.
posted by plinth at 7:00 AM on October 4, 2011

There have been some useful examples mentioned upthread—I would have mentioned Clearview and Dislexie if nobody else did—but beyond that, I suspect it would be difficult to quantify the impact of type on business.

As a thought-experiment, suppose that Goldman Sachs decided tomorrow to reset their logo in Comic Sans. Suppose a year later that a significant fraction of their major accounts had left. Is it possible that some or all of those departures were because their clients perceived them as being unserious? Yes. Would there be any way of quantifying that? Maybe—but even if you asked those clients "why did you leave Goldman Sachs?" how many would be able to answer unprompted "because of that stupid logo change."? And in any case, who would ask?

In cases like these, the perceptions that typography affects are subjective and hard for a lot of people to state clearly—but that doesn't mean that they don't perceive differences or that they are unaffected by them.
posted by adamrice at 7:04 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about this: take a sample of copy from somewhere that's at least a couple paragraphs. Set it in 10/10 x 60 pica line length. The font should be a normal text font; only change one set of parameters at a time. From the same book, take a another passage. The idea is to make it a similar style/topic but not identical, just have the same number of characters. Set this copy in the same font but 10/12 x 15. Give him the two printouts and time how long it takes him to read each one.

Try it again with a sans serif or with a display font or up the pt size. This is basic typesetting but it is still typography. The parameters are pretty extreme (you might want to make them less so) but it will provide a nuts and bolts example of typography and comprehension.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:34 AM on October 4, 2011

Does this person claim that "visual design" has no real-world impact? I would think it'd be hard to separate the two, and probably easier to defend from that point of view.

(Sort of +1ing Scientist's "do aesthetics matter" approach.)
posted by TangoCharlie at 8:38 AM on October 4, 2011


I'm sometimes involved in direct response copywriting, and this is absolutely the kind of thing we test.

I don't have any specifics on hand - but certainly the typeface of a sales letter can make a measurable difference to response levels.
posted by Ted Maul at 8:53 AM on October 4, 2011

I suppose the real question is 'at what point can you say the typography is good enough?' That's a pretty hard thing to measure. I can't help there but I can provide some examples where letterforms have been constructed with a functional purpose in mind.

Ink traps are usually present in the letters of typefaces designed for newspapers. Ideally, newspaper typefaces will have been designed to be printed on poor quality newsprint and at small sizes. Without ink traps the bleeding of ink would destroy the formal integrity of letterforms, reducing legibility and also creating distracting blobs and blurring in a body of text. Random blobs of ink draw attention and obstruct the natural flow of reading.

Ink traps also save ink, although I don't know if the amount saved is significant.

Newspapers probably also want their body copy typeface to be space efficient—hence the prevalence of typefaces with a high x-height. This is something that definitely earns newspapers more money. Higher x-heights allow a newspaper to sell more advertising space without adding pages.
posted by quosimosaur at 9:25 AM on October 4, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks a ton, everyone weighing in on both sides. Interesting stuff - I'm still working through the responses. Some clarifications, though mostly mentioned in post:

1) I'm interested in both typography and type design - I think I win the argument with either one.

2) This is essentially a philosophical question, and boils down to "do aesthetics matter"? No it isn't and it doesn't. I totally agree that these are Big Issues, but if there is no aspect of this which has quantifiable impact, this particular argument is lost. You may think that makes it a stupid argument, but that's also another discussion :)

3) I don't think that the field we work in matters a ton - we're all fairly well-rounded and interested in lots of things. Being "quantifiable" will help much more than being "close to what we do".

So far, it does seem as though it's hard to quantify, as I expected. However, there are a ton of practical and interesting examples here, which may be enough to chisel a grudging admission that it's at least not a clear-cut issue. I'll point him at this thread later today and see where we end up!

Honestly, since this has already led me to many interesting things, I consider myself as having won regardless of my interlocutor's response.
posted by freebird at 11:10 AM on October 4, 2011

Okay, would you concede that this non-philosophical question hinges on your interlocutor's idea of what "the real world" is, and how you "measure" an impact on it? Because it's easy to establish that typography makes people feel different. Apparently that doesn't count?
posted by LogicalDash at 12:06 PM on October 4, 2011

Further on what benzenedream said about distinguishable characters: Failure to localize a cell phone alphabet caused a misunderstanding that led to two deaths. See Language Log, Gizmodo, and Hürriyet [Turkish].
posted by expialidocious at 1:30 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a good question LogicalDash acts, because if you want to measure something you first have to define exactly what it is you're measuring. Yes, typography does have a measurable impact; there are studies that can show that. But you have to start by defining what impact you're planning to measure. Reader comprehension? Sales? Association with a given set of values? Attention? Dwell time? Appropriation?
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on October 4, 2011

Response by poster: Because it's easy to establish that typography makes people feel different. Apparently that doesn't count?

if you want to measure something you first have to define exactly what it is you're measuring

Exactly. This is getting close to the sort of "woo woo - you can't put a number on everything man!" kind of stuff this question is trying to avoid. Of course how people feel counts - but there are only some aspects thereof which are measurable. This question is about that subset, and I freely acknowledge it may be a small subset.

I'd call this success - I don't know if I can call the argument "won", but he spent a fair amount of time reading the stuff from this thread, and acknowledged there was a lot of interesting stuff there. Beyond that, as some have pointed out, it verges on arguing about Religion or Taste - kind of a waste of time. More importantly, I have learned a lot of new perspectives on this! Thanks for the people that weighed in on the other side as well, it's not a simple question.
posted by freebird at 8:53 AM on October 5, 2011

Late to the party perhaps, but it is surprising that no one mentioned the very discussions that often occur on Edward Tufte's site about this issue and design and font use in general.

I highly recommend reading the forum's topics on the subject under the "ET Notebooks" link.
posted by Bodrik at 12:24 AM on October 10, 2011

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