How to Choose a Font: A Science-backed Guide

By on Feb 10, 2020 in Inspiration
How to Choose a Font: A Science-backed Guide

As any graphic designer will tell you, choosing the perfect font for a project can be a love/hate process. The more prevalent and permanent you expect the font choice to be, the more involved you become in the decision. It usually starts with a font family's overall look and feel, but you can quickly find yourself in the depths of the type designer's most detailed choices.

Fortunately, many researchers have studied typography and its effects to uncover some strong arguments in favor of a given font for a specific type of project. Throughout this article, I will recap some of the most interesting findings hoping that these science-backed ideas will inspire your decision process. If you've ever felt overwhelmed by font selection, I've created this article to help you find the clarity you need as well as the evidence to back your choices. After each idea, I've included a few questions to reflect upon as you select the right typeface for your project.

1. Consumers are prone to choosing products whose meanings are congruent with their typography.

Fonts connote specific meanings and buyers tend to choose brands and products that signal what they're about through their typography. A study by Doyle and Bottomley analyzed fonts according to three types of connotations: evaluation (good, pleasant, beautiful, happy), potency (strong, hard, rugged, potent, tough), and activity (active, fast, young, lively). In general, font appropriateness had a high correlation with brand choice. Specifically, their results showed that a typeface should be congruent with the product on the potency and activity dimensions.

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Is my product's potency (strength, hardness, ruggedness) conveyed by this type choice?
  • Is my product's level of activity (speed, youth, liveliness) conveyed by this type choice?

2. Natural fonts are pleasant and engaging, while remaining subtle.

In an article published by the Journal of Marketing, Henderson et al studied the relationship between a font's design characteristics and the kind of emotional response it elicits in consumers. Responses were classified as pleasing, engaging, reassuring, and prominent. Design characteristics evaluated included elaborateness, naturalness, harmony, flourish, weight, and compressed. After having consumers respond to typefaces using impression measures, researchers discovered that natural had the largest effect in creating both pleasant and engaging experiences. Naturalness, as a design trait, refers to that irregular, organic, unplanned style some fonts exude, as opposed to a machine-made, geometric look. These kinds of fonts were also perceived as less prominent and more subtle. Other findings included the idea that harmony made fonts more reassuring, while elaborateness made them more unsettling.

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Would my design benefit from a natural-looking typeface?
  • Am I trying to project prominence or subtlety?

3. Typography affects consumers' ability to understand ads.

Researchers at the University of Alabama and Miami University set out to understand the effects of typographic factors in advertising. The scientists exposed 265 participants to ad stimuli, measuring their reading speed both for an experimental and a control version of the ad. For faster readers exposed to an 8pt. font size, serifs and an increased x-height both improved text legibility. 

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Is this typeface legible? Is x-height sufficient and are characters properly kerned?
  • What font size will this project's content be set at? If small, would it benefit from a serif typeface?

Typography terms made simple.


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Remember key typography concepts

Grab this handy cheatsheet summarizing some of the most important typography terms.

4. Lowercase wordmarks convey friendliness and uppercase wordmarks project strength.

If you're designing a logo, you'll find this study particularly interesting. Researchers at the Nankai and Tsinghua universities in China found that consumers feel a certain closeness to lowercase wordmarks, which could drive a higher perception of friendliness from the brand itself. However, uppercase wordmarks were more effective at conveying strength, which could reinforce perceived brand authority.

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Is this brand trying to portray a sense of warmth or distance? Friendliness or authority?
  • If we're setting type in all lowercase characters, does the typeface offer a distinctive style for that letter case?
  • Could we test alternate versions of the brand name with all lowercase and all uppercase characters, with a sample of our target customers?

5. Certain fonts can convey sattire and humor more effectively.

Researchers at the NYU Department of Applied Psychology compared the effect of satirical readings set in Times New Roman and Arial. They concluded there's an interaction between certain font traits and the emotional effect of text, finding that Times New Roman readings were perceived as angrier, funnier, and more satirical than those set in Arial.

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Am I trying to emphasize humor or satire in this text?
  • Does the font help reinforce the tone I'd like to associate with the copy?

6. Rounded fonts seem less threatening, hence more comfortable.

Moshe Bar and Maital Neta from Harvard Medical School wondered if objects with sharp transitions would generate an inherent negative reaction from participants. They hypothesized that objects with a curvier contour would seem less threatening to people, triggering their preference. To explore the question, they exposed subjects to 140 pairs of objects among which they included 23 letter duos: one set in Arial and one set in Arial Rounded MT. In general, participants liked the curved patterns significantly more than the sharp-angled patterns; and this was also true for the 23 letter pairs.

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Would this project benefit from a sharper or rounder type choice?
  • Does the sharp contour of this font seem too intimidating or unapproachable for the target audience?

7. Serif styles are perceived as more elegant, sans-serif typefaces come off as fresh.

A study published by the Psychology and Marketing journal looked, among others, at the relationship between serif/sans-serif styles and certain affective descriptors. In general, subjects rated serif typefaces as more elegant, charming, emotional, gentle, and rich. In turn, sans-serif typefaces were perceived as fresh, high-quality, vital, smart, and readable. While both types of effects have their place in design, it's important to be intentional about your type choice and the emotions it evokes.

Questions to guide your font choices: 

  • Is my priority to convey freshness or elegance?
  • Is it my intention to communicate a gentle or vital tone with this text?

Your turn!

Once you have understood the implications of certain font choices, deciding on a font family and a typography scheme to use in your brand content will become much easier. You will begin to develop a feel for what works based on the values, voice, and vision of the brand:

Values: Certain fonts convey specific values and attitudes towards life. Is your brand big on minimalism, productivity, or extravagant? Do you embrace eclecticism and modernity, or a more conservative outlook on life? Specific font families can send that message for you.

Voice: Fonts also express a certain mood that is immediately associated with the brand sharing the message. Are you outstandingly joyful, formal, pragmatic, dramatic, or enthusiastic? Those traits can come through in your font choices for brand content. If your brand manages various tones within that general voice, feel free to assemble a group of fonts versus going for a single font family.

Vision: Think beyond your brand’s current status. Where do you see this product/service going in the next 5, 10, 20 years? While you will probably change many design elements between now and then, it is important to start projecting a brand aesthetic that matches your most ambitious goals and not the status quo. Fonts can help communicate that future aspiration to your audience in a silent, yet powerful way.


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Free Font Pairing Cheatsheet


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