Fonts have personalities – and you can get attached to them, or wear them like clothes. What does our font choice say about us, and how might we ‘date’ them?
I must admit I’m unfaithful when it comes to fonts. I’m writing this first draft in Georgia. I’ll change it to Cambria before editing it, to give me ‘fresh eyes’ (by changing fonts, I sometimes pick up on errors I may have otherwise missed). And before I hand it in, I’ll change it to Times New Roman.
‘Regular’ people (not counting designers and their ilk) like me may not have given all that much thought to fonts. But most of us have a favourite font with which we write, right? Some people might not think they particularly care about fonts, but if, say, Helvetica (one of the world’s most popular) disappeared, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. On the TV show Industry, a new hire desperate to impress stays up all night to finish a project, printing it out last minute then freaking out upon seeing one page isn’t Helvetica 12 as directed. That storyline doesn’t end well.
You might have a preference for modern, simple ‘sans-serif’ fonts like Helvetica and Calibri, which don’t have little extensions at the end of each letter. Or you may prefer traditional, fancier ‘serif’ (sɛrɪf) fonts like Times New Roman or Georgia, which do have little extensions at the end of each letter. I prefer serif fonts, which makes sense, as they’re often used in books and magazines, and I’m a big reader.
Font Of Knowledge
Who knew that ‘font psychology’ is a thing? Sarah Hyndman is the U.K.-based author of Why Fonts Matter, How to Draw Type & Influence People, and The Type Taster: How Fonts Influence You, a former graphic designer, and the founder/facilitator of ‘Type Tastings’: multi-sensory typography workshops, experiments, events and installations. She’s been measuring ‘the multi-sensory and emotional impact of fonts’ for 10 years, co-publishes studies with an Oxford University professor, and is a keynote and TEDx speaker. She’s, well, a font of knowledge – and loves to share that knowledge.
“Typefaces are like body language for written words,” Hyndman tells me over Zoom. “They’re a form of non-verbal communication that you understand instinctively and automatically, in your subconscious brain.”
All your life, you’ve been seeing so many different fonts, Hyndman tells me. Yep, I must see dozens every day, online and offline, indoors and outdoors. What is the chunky font next to Christopher Luxon’s shiny head on a political hoarding that I pass on my walk to work? Why is the typeface on my favourite café’s menu so tiny and flowery?
What Kind Of Friday Night Would Your Font Choice Have
Fonts have personalities that we recognise, as Hyndman’s following joke shows.“Helvetica, Times New Roman and Comic Sans walk into a bar. Helvetica, ‘the everyman’, orders a pint of lager; Times New Roman, ‘the intellectual’, selects a respectable white wine; and Comic Sans, ‘the comedian’, does some shots.” In another version of this joke, the barman turns to Comic Sans and says, ‘Sorry, we don’t serve your type in here’.
Which font would Hyndman hang out with? “I’d go for a coffee with Times New Roman because you can have a serious conversation. But if I wanted a fun night out, I’d go out with Comic Sans!”
You could think of the fonts you use as “typographic selfies”, or as “clothes for your words to wear”, she says. “It’s like choosing outfits, based on how you feel at that moment. You might try on several outfits for a Friday night before maybe returning to the first one.” Yup!
Do You Think Fonts Have Personality?
“I’ve long thought that different typefaces have personalities,” Hyndman says, “but I had to think ‘does everybody else?’.” So she created an online ‘Font Census’ which has had many hundreds of responses – and is still going should you wish to take part. It takes two minutes. Survey participants (dubbed ‘font profilers’) are randomly allocated a font, not knowing what it is, and they rate aspects of the font’s ‘personality’, largely via multi-choice questions. “The results,” Hyndman says, “show that (a) typefaces do have uniquely different personalities, and that (b) there is significant agreement on the personality types”.
She discusses the census’s early results in her book Why Fonts Matter. How did respondents describe Georgia, the font I use most? With words like intellectual, thinker, dependable, confident, professional, classic, practical. I mean, that doesn’t mean I’m all these things, but I’d like to be! Jobs that Georgia lovers might do include researcher, editor, journalist, features writer, blogger, fact checker. So yeah, that tracks.
Hyndman would love people to take part in the Font Census and other ‘experiments’ at her online Type Tasting Laboratory. They’re fun – and they’re helping her gather information for a new book. You might enjoy playing ‘What Type of Coffee’. Which of five options (the word ‘coffee’ in five different fonts) is a flat white, latte, cappuccino, espresso, frappuccino, americano, or none of the above?
Speed Dating But Make It For Font Choice
Many hundreds of people have played Hyndman’s ‘Type Dating Game’, via her book Why Fonts Matter, or via her website (you can also buy her card game ‘What’s Your Type?’ as a sort of extended version). “The Type Dating Game is a fun way of exploring whether we pick typefaces that reflect our values and mirror our personalities,” Hyndman says. “It’s not particularly scientific, but it does demonstrate that we readily identify with fonts and that we instinctively know which ones we might be compatible with.”
So as per instructions, I imagine I’m at a speed-dating event. I decide which one of nine fonts (not knowing their names) to put on my name badge. It’s not just about who I am, but how I want to present myself. I choose ‘Hello I’ because it looks classy but not too flowery. I choose my ‘date’ from nine fonts. #Date 9 looks unpretentious and dependable.
As ‘Hello I, #Date 9’, it turns out I chose: Caslon. That’s the name given to serif typefaces designed (or inspired) by William Caslon, who in 18th-century London stamped the moulds used to cast metal type. I like a good practical man!
This is Hyndman’s personality analysis of someone who chooses Caslon. “Although first impressions may be that you are fairly conservative, people quickly discover that you are curious and inquisitive. You are well read and can always recommend a good book or two. You are also well travelled and have many stories to tell.” I mean, I hope that’s true, given as a journalist I literally tell stories for a living.
But why do I change my font from Georgia to Times New Roman before handing in my stories? Well, both serif fonts have similar personalities, Hyndman says. “Times New Roman was designed for The Times newspaper so it’s a journalism typeface. So, just like you might check your hair and makeup before you go out, you’re putting on your business suit of Times New Roman to present your work to your boss.” That makes sense.
“Times New Roman was designed for squished little newspaper columns, so spread over a document on your computer, it can feel a little squashed or uncomfortable,” Hyndman says. “Whereas Georgia has been designed to work across a computer screen: to be quite legible but still to have serifs: ‘the little feet that make you feel’. Anything with serifs we associate subconsciously with knowledge or intellect.”
Georgia is one of the most widely-used typefaces on the internet. “Georgia is the standard system font for emails, so generally the person who gets your email will receive it in Georgia,” Hyndman says. “Whereas if you use a fancy font that you’ve downloaded, it’ll probably default to Arial or something.”
That’s good to know, because I DON’T like Arial. Is that weird? Nope, Hyndman says. “Instinctively, you think ‘I don’t know why but you [Arial] make me feel uncomfortable’. Maybe you’ve got negative associations with Arial or with someone who used it, maybe it’s a bit too bland, maybe you feel like it’s not designed nicely enough to flow well.” So perhaps I had a bad experience with Arial, like I’ve had with vodka, and they’ve put me off both? “Yes!” Hyndman says. “Let’s call Arial the Sambuca of the typography world!”
There are fonts you dislike, and fonts you like. Really like. When I got my first journalism job, Sabon was the font favoured by my colleagues, and I got attached to it, believing my work looked much better in it. When I left my job, I couldn’t find Sabon (I just tried to buy it, but it would cost $400 and, no, I don’t understand why that is).
I ask Hyndman about my affection for Sabon. Is it bizarre? “It’s completely not bizarre. It’s like clothes – some clothes make you feel good. Sabon became your voice, then, after you left your job, you had to work out what font fits your new voice.”
I’ve never found one that fits my voice perfectly. But writing this story has inspired me to try some new fonts, even though having 36 options beginning with the letter ‘a’ in Word’s drop-down menu means it might take a while.
Hyndman wants people to have fun with fonts. “We’re having this typographic renaissance where so many fonts have become popular. We can mix and match, from the old Victorian display typefaces through to more modern, neutral fonts.” But if you’re totally attached to just one, that’s very normal.