January 24, 2011

Ugly fonts help make beautiful minds


Stop! Everything you thought you knew about typesetting and good graphic design was wrong. All wrong…

Back in 2010 the BBC ran a piece titled, ‘What’s so wrong with Comic Sans?’ as an exploration into why the font has fostered so much hatred among not only typographers and design snobs but also regular humans. There is even an entire website devoted to what Laura Miller calls the “typographical jihad” against this single font. (Visit Bancomicsans.com where you can make a donations towards a documentary on the most hated font in the world.)

They may have to put the brakes on their plans slightly, because as of this month, findings suggest that Comic Sans may actually lead to better retention of information.  A study entitled; “Fortune favors the Bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes” was conducted by a research team at Princeton University. The study consisted of teaching the same information to different groups of students of all different learning abilities. For one group of students, the study materials were printed in an ‘easy’ font, such as Arial. For the other, their materials were printed in so-called disfluent fonts such as Comic Sans Italicized and Monotype Corsiva (although no Wingdings, for some reason).

After several weeks of study, both groups of students were tested and the outcome was surprising: the group of students studying from the fonts which were more difficult to read performed better in their tests. There are several theories as to why this might be, with the main thought being that processing information in a more complex format forces the brain to try harder, which in turn forces you to take in and eventually recall the information more effectively. Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer says;

“We assume that anything which makes it easier to see the content, to process the content, is a good thing. And you see that especially in the classroom where teachers assume that legibility makes it easier for kids to learn and remember the information they’re trying to process, and that turns out that that’s exactly backwards.”

The applications for learning potential is obvious, but I can’t help but wonder what the implications could be for the written word. Laura Miller points out that some e-reading devices already give users the choice of half a dozen different fonts, (although you can be sure that Comic Sans isn’t one of them). If this effect is so great, will we begin to print not only school materials, but also novels in fonts that encourage greater mental engagement? These findings may not even be permanent – perhaps in fifty years, when we’re used to reading everything in ugly fonts, we’ll have trouble comprehending our old faithful friend, Times New Roman.

As the years go by and I read more and more books, there have been several occasions on which I find that I have forgotten the plot, or key ideas in books that I have spent a total of over eight hours reading. On the one hand, it can bring great pleasure to revisit a treasured story for a second (or even third) time. However when it comes to forgetting the major plot points of a beast like Daniel Deronda, I can’t help but lament: if only it had been printed in Comic Sans.