Monday, January 14, 2008

Typefaces reveal a font of personality traits

By Sam McManis
Friday, Jan. 11 2008

You are reading this story in a typeface called Poynter OS Text Two L. Or, if you're online, it's in an Arial font.

Did you notice?

Do you care?

Many people don't. They go through their daily lives — sending e-mails, writing résumés, composing Word documents, crafting PowerPoint presentations — oblivious to the multitude of typefaces at their disposal.

Take New York Times best-selling mystery author John Lescroart, who lives in Davis, Calif.

"I just use my default font," Lescroart says. "I don't even know what it is. Hold on. I can tell you in about 10 seconds."

As we wait for Lescroart's answer, let's ponder the sudden and curious ascension of typefaces (also labeled fonts in most computer programs) for many others. It's a phenomenon in the pop-culture world, really, that goes hand-in-mouse with digital technology.

A new documentary, "Helvetica," which explores the appeal of that most utilitarian of typefaces, is garnering good reviews. Online sites where you can buy — no exaggeration — more than 58,000 fonts have proliferated, as has the griping by typography traditionalists. One art snob in Indiana has even started an online movement trying to ban the goofy typeface Comic Sans.

And yes, academics have weighed in, too. Researchers at Wichita State University in Kansas have published a series of studies detailing what your font of choice says about you — sort of a Rorschach test for the Web 2.0 set.

But, anyway, back to Lescroart.

"OK," he says, "I'm currently typing in Times New Roman 12."

Then, he adds, almost apologetically: "I don't take advantage of what's out there."

Other people, however, do. And they see typefaces as extensions of their personalities.

"Typefaces are the clothes words wear, and just as we make judgments about people by the clothes they wear, so we make judgments about the information we're reading by the typefaces," typography analyst Caroline Archer told BBC radio recently.

For those who have, like, a life, here's a quick primer on typefaces: They are divided into two main groups — serif and sans serif. Serifs, simply, are letters with tiny horizontal lines added to the top and bottom of letters. Sans serifs, therefore, don't have such appendages.

Of course, designers have manipulated type into all sorts of tricked-out forms.

But do fonts really make the man or woman?

"The cliché in my business is that type talks," says Peter Norris, creative director for Sacramento advertising agency Runyon Saltzman Einhorn. "Think of it as your voice. A good company will be very consistent with its voice, whatever it's trying to convey. Some fonts are heavy and yell at you. Others are strong silent types."

Try this out as a new pickup line: Hey, babe, I'm a Rockwell Xbold. Are you my type?

Caroline Loomis, a junior high school computer arts teacher in Davis, says she tries mightily to get her students to go easy on the wacky fonts. One popular choice for kids, she says, is Blackletter686 BT.

"(It's a) very fancy, Old English kind of calligraphic font," Loomis says. "It's a headline font totally unsuited to paragraph text."

In other words, it's hard to read.

Loomis has hundreds of fonts at her disposal but admits that she remains a typeface conservative.

"While I might wish to use a font or color to express 'me,' I never actually do it for fear that the other person will interpret it incorrectly," she says.

Although Loomis does lighten up occasionally by using Comic Sans — but only in the privacy of her own home.

Hmmm. So, by the Wichita State psychology-research-study standard, does that mean Loomis has a split personality?

Perhaps. Loomis' penchant for Times New Roman makes her "stable, mature, formal and conformist," according to the data, whereas her Comic Sans bent makes her "happy, cuddly, youthful and casual."

But it's not really you that's being judged, lead researcher Dawn Shaikh hastens to add — it's how others perceive you.

Shaikh came by her study's findings after quizzing 561 subjects in 2005 and 2006 on 20 popular typefaces using 15 adjective pairs. From that, she and the two other researchers developed specific personality traits.

Shaikh's data suggest that those wanting to come off well in typeface correspondence should use sans serif fonts such as Verdana, Arial and Microsoft's new Calibri, or old serif standbys such as Georgia and Times New Roman.

Typefaces to avoid, lest you be saddled with a negative adjective: Rockwell Xbold ("rude, coarse, unattractive"), Impact ("plain, rigid, assertive"), Gigi (unstable, rebel, impractical) and Courier New ("dull, unimaginative, plain").

"Those (negative) typeface personalities do translate to the perception of the document," Shaikh maintains.

But, unpopular as they may be, they haven't yet drawn the ire of graphic designers in an organized campaign, a la Comic Sans.

Norris, of Runyon Saltzman Einhorn, says, simply: "I hate it."

Indianapolis designer Dave Combs has taken his hatred a step further by developing the semi-tongue-in-cheek website,, which encourages people to download decals to slap on any document or banner that uses the offending typeface.

"These widespread abuses of printed type threaten to erode the very foundations upon which centuries of typographic history are built," Combs writes on his site. "Since the advent of desktop publishing, powerful tools are in the hands of uneducated people unaware of proper font usage."

Microsoft designer Vincent Connare introduced the typeface in 1995. But Combs blames the average user for foisting Comic Sans on us in such inappropriate places as medical forms, governmental signage and resumes.

In any case, think twice ­— no, three times — before using a "fun font" like Comic Sans in a resume, advises Dan Greitzer of Resumes By Design in Sacramento.

"I really discourage anything outlandish," he says. "It's got to be readable. I use Times New Roman. It's serious, straight business writing. Courier or Arial also work. Don't get too weird."

But it's a whole other story for those with a decidedly artistic bent.

Lescroart notwithstanding, authors tend of obsess on typefaces. In the introduction to a new anthology of short stories to be published in February, editor (and novelist) Zadie Smith apologized to authors for removing their idiosyncratic font.

"There are quite a few writers in this volume who use variations on the nostalgic American Typewriter font (and they are all American), as if the ink were really wet and the press still hot," Smith writes. "We have two users of the elegant, melancholic Didot font (both British), and a writer who centres the text in one long, thin strip down the page, like a newspaper column (and uses Georgia, a font that has an academic flavor). Anyway, I hope what remains
will satisfy."

Because, after all, authors have been known to take matters into their own hands.

Several years ago, best-selling British horror novelist James Herbert had his publisher pulp the first run of a novel because it had the audacity to use a typeface other than Century Old Style.

Asked BBC reporter Ian Peacock, "What would you do if a publisher decided to print your book in Arial or Verdana?"

Herbert: "Then I wouldn't be with that publisher anymore. ... I'm a pain, but I'm usually right."

Yeah, we know the type.


  1. I'm an Arial girl myself, and I could never date a Verdana, Courier New, Comic Sans, or Wing-Ding...we just wouldn't be compatible =)

  2. I use Arial (and Helvetica) the most. I can't get into the fussy fonts for anything other than accents.

  3. I always use Georgia. What about it ?

  4. Georgia's a nice, stable font. Ordinary, but not Times New Roman typical.

  5. I like to use Times New Roman or Arial when in Business mode. Verdana is not so bad either, but has been overused.

  6. Ah, Verdana! The font that almost tore IKEA apart. I didn't like the change, but admittedly it's not as horrible as some might suggest.

    TNR and Arial are both good, if a bit overused. I can dig it.

  7. Strangely enough, RPG books made me notice fonts. I fell in love with Palatino when I read TORG, and Shadowrun's Fitz Quadrata makes me feel warm inside, like a cup of hot chocolate in letter form.

  8. That's a cool perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Calibri, my one true love.

    Great article!