The Power of Typeface

By Ian Pisarcik, Legal Publications Attorney Editor

How many animals of each species did Moses take on the Ark?

If you answered “two,” you’re wrong, but you’re not alone. According to a study published in The
Journal of the International Social Cognition Network, 88 percent of people failed to spot the mistake (Noah was the actor in the biblical story). But here’s the interesting part, when a less-common typeface was used, the number of people who failed to spot the mistake fell from 88 percent to 53 percent.

The conclusion of the University of Michigan researchers, as well as numerous other researchers who have conducted similar studies, is that a familiar typeface enables readers to skim effortlessly over words. On the other hand, an unfamiliar or hard-to-read typeface forces the brain to invest greater time and attention. The result is that readers are more likely to spot anomalies.

I observe this phenomenon on a small scale almost every day. When I’m reading a passage that seems amiss for no immediately discernible reason, I’ll often change the typeface. The change, nearly without fail, enables me to quickly diagnose the problem.

The University of Michigan study is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to typography research. A study conducted by researchers at Mindlab International found that people who ate soup ordered from a menu written in Lucida Calligraphy were more likely to enjoy the soup than those who ordered the same soup from a menu written in Courier. In another study, Errol Morris (with help from Cornell University Professor of Psychology David Dunning) found that people who read text printed in Baskerville typeface were more likely to believe the text than text printed in many other typefaces, including Georgia and Helvetica.

The body of research surrounding typeface may not help you write a brief or any other court document that has strict requirements, but it may come in handy when creating a website, sending an e-mail, or designing a business card. Just imagine all that power.

*As an interesting side note, typeface and font are not synonymous despite common usage.

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