Credit: Flickr user Steve Keys
Few topics will stir the passions of a typographer so much as the mere mention of the font Comic Sans. Sure, there was Frederic Goudy’s 1936 proclamation that “any man who would letterspace blackletter would shag sheep.” But did improper letterspacing ever inspire a (hilarious) web site calling for its banning? Comic Sans, developed for Microsoft in the 1990s to give their operating system a “friendlier” option, seems, among certain circles, to incite more anger than love.
Typographers have spent centuries honing their craft. While the first printed books, like Gutenberg’s Bible, used fonts that imitated calligraphy, printers quickly moved beyond that phase. One of the most popular fonts used in books today, Garamond, was inspired by French typographer Claude Garamond, who in the 16th century designed very modern-looking fonts less than a century after Gutenberg. Readable fonts like Garamond and Sabon were seen as a huge advance, and have been retained, with few modifications, for centuries. The typographer and book designer Robert Bringhurst describes the stakes in this way: “When the type is poorly chosen, what the words say linguistically and what the letters imply visually are dishonest, disharmonious, out of tune.”
That may be true from an aesthetic perspective, but does a font like Comic Sans actually do any real harm? Are documents set in Comic Sans harder to read and understand? While there have been decades of research on readability—how quickly a font can be processed, and how much information is retained over the short term—it’s only recently that researchers have started to take a closer look at the relationship between fonts and real understanding.
In 2009, librarian Eric Schnell wanted to know if the font of his library handouts made a difference, and uncovered a 2008 study which suggested that it did. Researchers Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz developed two versions of a handout designed to motivate students to exercise regularly. One was composed in basic Arial, while the other used the casual Brush font (like Comic Sans, a font meant to mimic handwriting). The students who read about exercise in Arial were significantly more enthusiastic about exercising than those who read in Brush. In a separate experiment, the researchers found similar results for a set of instructions on how to roll sushi. So perhaps those snobby typographers have a point: Setting type in a more readable font seems to lead to a better response.
That may be why the blogger at Games With Words was skeptical when Jonah Lehrer wrote that e-readers might be more effective if they were less legible: “Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously…. We won’t just scan the words—we will contemplate their meaning.” Lehrer suggests that in some cases, it might be preferable to slow down, and a less-legible font could help. The Games With Words blogger noted that Lehrer didn’t cite a specific study, and wondered whether Lehrer was conflating word-level understanding with sentence-level understanding.
...Which brings us back to good old Comic Sans.
Last week, science writer and editor Christian Jarrett blogged about a new study, published this month in Cognition. The researchers, led by Connor Diemand-Yauman, asked 28 student volunteers to read about hypothetical alien species from a sheet printed in either 16-point Arial, 12-point Bodoni, or, yes, 12-point Comic Sans. The larger Arial font was much more legible than the other two versions, but in a quiz 15 minutes later, students reading the Bodoni or Comic Sans versions were significantly more accurate in recalling details about the aliens.
In a follow-up, in collaboration with an Ohio high school, the researchers made actual classroom handouts less legible, either by setting them in smaller, harder-to-read fonts (including Haettenschweiler, Monotype Corsiva, and once again, Comic Sans), or by moving them around while duplicating them on a copy machine. Once again, out of a pool of 220 participating students, those who studied from the less-legible materials did better on tests than those with more-legible handouts.
So in these cases, at least, there does seem to be some merit to Lehrer’s argument: Less-legible fonts can actually make for better reading comprehension, perhaps because they force slower, more careful reading. Yet how can we reconcile those results with the Song & Schwarz study cited by Schnell?
I’d submit that the documents are serving different purposes. In the case of Song & Schwarz, the documents were designed to increase enthusiasm, while in the Diemand-Yauman study, the researchers were concerned with memory of facts. And in all of these cases, we’re talking only about very short documents. In longer works like books, legibility may have a different effect. Might readers lose stamina after endless chapters of barely-legible text?
If, in the next century, the latest research supports printing thousand-page biology texts in 12-point Comic Sans, Claude Garamond and Frederic Goudy won’t be the only ones rolling in their graves. I will be, too.
Dave Munger is editor of ResearchBlogging.org, where you can find thousands of blog posts on this and myriad other topics. Each week, he writes about recent posts on peer-reviewed research from across the blogosphere. See previous Research Blogging columns »
Originally published January 6, 2011