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Font matters

Aug 11, 2012

Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts.

Last month, documentary-making colossus Errol Morris wrote a piece on the New York Times site called Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist. About the idea of a meteor hitting Earth, it featured at its end a questionnaire which seemed to ask readers whether they think it’s true that “we live in an era of unprecedented safety”. I responded, too, faintly hoping, I suppose, that I might end up on an Errol Morris documentary about meteors and paranoia. Because I love meteors and paranoia.

But it turns out that he wasn’t looking for answers to that question at all. He, with Cornell psychology professor David Dunning, was actually looking for statistical evidence of whether responses changed depending on the font in which the question was set, a project that set out to discover: “Can we separate the form of the writing from its content?” It was inspired, in part, by CERN’s use of Comic Sans in its official announcement of the Higgs boson.

He even has the answer as to why CERN used it:

Gianotti, the coordinator of the CERN program to find the Higgs boson, provided a compelling rationale for why she had used Comic Sans. When asked, she said, “Because I like it.”

Anyway, the answers are in. And what do you know? There were (very) small differences in the types of responses. And it seems that Baskerville is the most commanding font there is.

Me, I really like Univers. In fact, I’m tempted to start a company just to have house stationery, a logo and a business card using it. No nonsense and yet gently distinctive (it is NOT simply Helvetica, in case you were wondering), I don’t think you can ignore a company that uses Univers.

I’ve always really liked Baskerville, too. For reading, at least. It’s a fantastically elegant and implacable font.

But what about Comic Sans? I’m tired of all the snobby whining about it, to be honest. Sure it’s rubbishy and cheap-looking, and yeah, Morris’ study confirms my assumptions that things written in it aren’t taken as seriously as those written in obviously AWESOME fonts like Univers, which, if he had used it, would clearly have beaten Baskerville. And I used to get as snortingly up tight about dumbos using Comic Sans, too.

But what the hell, I was just being a snotty design-prig. If Morris proves anything new, it’s that the statistical difference, while definitely there, is so tiny that use of Comic Sans really is just a matter of taste. Heck, Gianotti, if you like it, go right ahead.