Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Trust in Baskerville

Esteemed film director Errol Morris ran a brief survey in the New York Times on July 9. Ostensibly, he was asking if readers were optimistic or pessimistic regarding the possibility of an asteroid hitting the Earth. This being Errol Morris, he had a hidden agenda:

We all know that we are influenced in many, many ways — many of which we remain blissfully unaware of. Could fonts be one of them? Could the mere selection of a font influence us to believe one thing rather than another? Could fonts work some unseen magic? Or malefaction?

Good question. This website’s paragraph text is set in Crimson. Would you trust it more or less if it were set in Helvetica Neue? What about Trebuchet, or Avenir, or even Times? To what degree? Morris explains his methodology:

Each Times participant read the passage in one of six randomly assigned fonts — Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. The questions, ostensibly about optimism or pessimism, provided data about the influence of fonts on our beliefs.

The results of this aren’t shocking—all design students are taught that serif faces convey a sense of trust and establishment, and everyone knows that anything set in Comic Sans is ripe to be ridiculed—but the degree to which font choice affects our opinion of something is astonishing.

Morris also cites the case of CERN using Comic Sans in its presentation announcing the discovery of a Higgs Boson-like particle. Why would one of the most respected research organizations in the world make the biggest announcement in particle physics with one of the worst fonts ever created?

Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist, kindly e-mailed Fabiola Gianotti on my behalf. Gianotti, the coordinator of the CERN program to find the Higgs boson, provided a compelling rationale for why she had used Comic Sans. When asked, she said, “Because I like it.”

There is, in fact, a much more interesting history to CERN’s use of Comic Sans, stretching back even before Gianotti committed this offence in December 2011. A physicist friend of mine assures me that this is a long-running inside joke amongst scientists in general. Important presentations get typeset in Comic Sans because irony is hilarious, or something to that effect.