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Is Baskerville the most 'convincing' typeface?

An experiment by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris explores whether a can typeface sway our perception of the truth.

Image: adactio via Creative Commons/Flickr

CAN A STATEMENT seem more (or less) believable, depending on the typeface it’s presented in?

That’s the question posed by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who polled approximately 45,000 readers of the New York Times website in order to examine “the effect of typefaces on truth”.

Is a message more believable if it’s written in Baskerville than, say, Helvetica, Georgia or Comic Sans?

The answer, it would seem, is yes.

In his experiment, Morris – a frequent contributor to the NYT Opinionater blog – encouraged his audience to read a passage from physicist David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity, in which outlined the unlikelihood that the Earth would be destroyed by an asteroid.

Readers were then asked to express whether they believed Deutsch’s position by taking part in a survey entitled “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?“.

However, the survey was a ruse.

Typeface of the passage altered

Animator Benjamin Berman created a programme that randomly altered the typeface of the passage to one of six selected – Georgia, Computer Modern, Helvetica, Trebuchet, Comic Sans and Baskerville – while the test itself was designed with the help of Cornell psychology professor David Dunning.

The results of the test showed that, for every 1,000 respondents, almost five people more agreed with Deutsch’s statement when it was presented in Baskerville than when it was presented in Helvetica.

Commenting on the findings, Dunning said:

It’s small, but it’s about a 1 per cent to 2 per cent difference — 1.5 per cent to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large. You are collecting these data in an uncontrolled environment (who knows, for example just how each person’s computer is rendering each font, how large the font is, is it on an iPad or iPhone, laptop or desktop), are their kids breaking furniture in the background, etc. So to see any difference is impressive. Many online marketers would kill for a 2 per cent advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales.

The reason why Baskerville appears to be so convincing is yet to be established, although Morris speculates it may be because it’s the favoured typeface of school textbooks.

Whatever the reason, Morris says we may be “at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognise” (although some designers may point out they’re already quite aware of that) and wonders if the refrain “Mommy, Mommy, the typeface made me do it” might soon make it’s way into everyday language.

Read: Errol Morris’s full Opinionator blog posts Part One and Part Two>

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