In questions of perception and behavior, font matters ~ Brand Mix

Monday, February 1, 2010

In questions of perception and behavior, font matters

Photo: Half Futura, half Comic Sans by Nick Douglas (Flickr)

Behold, the power of font to influence perception and change behavior! An article by Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz in the February edition of The Psychologist shows that fonts can significantly influence people's assessment about how easy or difficult things are to do.

Take a look at this example:

When Song and Schwarz presented these exercise instructions in Arial, readers guessed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete. When presented the identical instructions in Brush Script MT (which wasn't quite as hard to read as in this technologically-constrained example), they guessed it would take 15.1 minutes. Plus they were more willing to incorporate the Arial-presented exercise into their daily routine. Implication: If we want people to adopt a new behavior, the instructions don't just need to be semantically clear, they also need to be visually easy to read, otherwise the behavior will seem too demanding.

It's all to do with what the authors call "processing fluency." We don't have unlimited brain processing power (just like my home computer, we don't have enough RAM). If something is written well and it's easy to read, people are able to process the information more easily and will feel more at ease with the thing that's being described. If it's too complex, even if it's just the font that's difficult to read, it starts taxing our circuits.

Other experiments show that a font also influences whether people make decisions or not. Researchers tested people on their ability to choose between two cordless phones. 17% of people tested postponed choice when the font was easy to read, 41% postponed their choice when the font was difficult to read. For more than twice as many people, the difficult-to-read font was enough to stop them taking a decision.

Another interesting finding from this experiment was that, if the participants were told that the information about the phones might be difficult to read because of the print font, the difference between the two groups was completely eliminated. People are apparently quite sensitive to their feelings of ease or difficulty but not so good at figuring out what's driving these feelings. Fonts have subliminal power!

Does this mean that the only good font is a simple font? Not necessarily. Song and Schwarz talk about another of their experiments where they tested people's reaction to a Japanese recipe, once again using an easy-to-read font (Arial) vs. a difficult one (Mistral). In this case, the participants assumed that the difficult-to-read recipe would require more time and skill to prepare than the easy-to-read recipe. That might deter someone from trying out the recipe at home but it also might make them pay more for it at a restaurant.

These experiments are a useful reminder that fonts have functional as well as aesthetic value-- something to bear in mind if tempted by fonts exotic but impenetrable.

(Thanks to the pointer from Mind Hacks)


barbanouille said...

Nice article. Fonts are too rarely mentionned when it comes to analyse perception bias.

Did you know Helvetica's success comes partly from a funny fact?

Studies showed helvetica was the most relaxing font from people's point of view...

Thus, pharmaceutical industry universally adopted it because it allowed packakings not to be frightening to people...

I wrote a french note dealing with this topic :

Martin Bishop said...

@barbanouille: Thanks for sharing that story. Part 2 tomorrow - names influence perception as well

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