The Psychology of Fonts

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Theoretical vs. Practical Forms

Aristotle divided all Platonic forms into two classes—theoretical and practical. The theoretical forms could be quantified by converting them into geometry, essentially reducing them to shape. The practical forms, such as beauty, justice, and truth, could not be so converted and had to be decided by people’s intuition, opinions, or choices. Thus, a classic divide between the subjective and the objective was created in Western philosophy, which continues to this day. Under this divide, the subject is qualitative while the object is quantitative. In this article, I will examine how font styles—classically quantifiable objects—are described qualitatively, designed to elucidate different subjective effects, and widely used as such.

Through this distinction, we will see why the theoretical vs. practical form distinction is false. Shape may be a quantifiable property. But its effects on the readers is qualitative. Almost nobody talks about the shape of fonts. They are always classified based on their effects.

Serif vs. Sans Serif

A serif font has decorative strokes, is more beautiful, and hence more emotionally appealing. A sans serif font lacks the embellishments of a serif font and focuses on the function of cognition and communicative speed rather than the embellishments for appeal. A serif font is employed to improve reader retention, while a sans serif font is used to communicate information. Fiction literature dominantly uses serif fonts, while non-fiction technical manuals dominantly employ sans serif fonts.

A problem arises in the design of non-fiction books. We want some reader attachment and retention along with positive learning and speed of communication of information. This is when most people employ something in between a serif and a sans serif font. In such fonts, the serifs are subdued, although not completely eliminated. By keeping the serifs, you increase reader attention, but by subduing them, you increase the focus on the content and function instead of beauty and appeal.

Heavy vs. Light

A heavy font is that which has thicker strokes, while a light font is that which has thinner strokes. A heavy font implies something important, outstanding, distinctive, or exceptional. A thinner font implies something frivolous, commonplace, unimportant, and unoriginal. Due to this distinction, headings in publications are heavier than the text that follows. By making the heading heavier, we indicate something exceptional, distinctive, and important than the other text. By making the rest of the text lighter, we bundle it together because lighter indicates unoriginal, unimportant, and common.

If we have multiple levels of headings, then the top-level heading must be heavier than the heading that follows which should be heavier relative to the text that follows. By this hierarchy of heaviness, we indicate that the top-level heading is more important. The book title is typically the heaviest, followed by chapter titles, followed by section titles, and followed by textual content. This heaviness attaches greater importance to the title. Sometimes, heaviness is replaced by a bigger font size because bigness has similar psychological effects as heaviness. In most cases, headings are both bigger and heavier.

If the content uses a heavy font, the reader feels psychologically tired due to the unceasing demand for attention to something important. He or she is more likely to put the book down after a while because the mind can only take so much important stuff at a time. Consequently, if the content uses a lighter font, the reader tends to skip content while reading, because it psychologically seems less important. To prevent the reader from skipping, the font has to be slightly heavier but to prevent the reader from putting the book away, the font has to be slightly lighter. It can be hard to find a balance.

Flat vs. Modulated

A flat font is one that has a uniform thickness, and a modulated font is one that varies its thickness. When the thickness varies, some parts of the font are heavier, while other parts are lighter. When the thickness is constant, all the parts of the font have the same heaviness. A modulated font has the psychological effect of a rhythmic up and down while a flat font has the psychological effect of being steady. Since a modulated font increases and decreases its thickness, it can create the feeling that the content is more important than a thinner flat font but less important than a thicker flat font.

If a narrative has many ups and downs and goes back and forth in terms of its arguments, then the use of modulated fonts prepares the reader for this see-saw in the content. If a narrative progresses steadily at an even pace, then the use of flat fonts prepares the reader to remain steady in their reading. Thus, a story with many surprises, or a narrative with twists and turns, is better off with a modulated font. An instruction manual that is neatly divided into steady and firm procedures is better off with a flat font.

A steady reader expects the same amount of informational novelty in a certain length of text. A modulated reader instead expects informational surprises followed by informational continuity. Flat fonts, therefore, encourage readers to skip text, because they don’t anticipate surprises. Modulated fonts encourage readers to read everything carefully because they are expecting sudden surprises.

Narrow vs. Broad

A narrow font creates the psychological effect of looking at something closer, akin to investigating the details, peering into a microscope, paying greater attention, etc. A broad font creates the psychological effect of looking at the big picture and drawing overarching conclusions while relaxing the attention.

Books for relaxed reading, for example, will mostly employ broader fonts, while books that demand greater attention will use narrower fonts. A book that uses narrower fonts will focus the attention on details, but also mentally tire the person quicker. A book that uses broader fonts will allow the person to read longer, although with lesser attention. You can either get longer retention or shorter focus.

If you want a person to read a difficult technical subject for a longer time, you will choose something in between a narrow and a broad font, drawing sufficient attention to focus on details, while preparing them for longer reading by relaxing the narrowness. Since this is a tradeoff, you cannot get both.

Angular vs. Rounded

An angular font is one that has sharp corners, while a rounded font is one that has smooth corners. The angular vs. rounded distinction is that between sharp and smooth. If you are designing the sign of a shop that promises relaxation, then you use rounded fonts. If you are designing the sign of a shop that promises novelty, then you use angular fonts. You are on the edge with an angular font, and you are relaxed with a rounded font. You anticipate new things with angularity and consistency with roundness.

Things that are not impactful, are meant for entertainment and relaxation, thus use rounded fonts. And things are impactful and are meant to be taken seriously, employ angular fonts. You will dim the importance of an impactful book by using rounded fonts. And you will exaggerate the importance of a storybook by using angular fonts. Hence, if you are mixing fact with fiction, you will mix the angular and rounded fonts (angular for facts and rounded for fiction). If you are writing factual but scary non-fiction, you are better off with angular fonts. However, if that non-fiction is relaxing, then you use something in between angular and rounded, tending more toward one or the other based on what you prioritize.

Big vs. Small

Big (like heavy) has the psychological effect of being more important, and small (like light) has the psychological effect of being less important. However, bigger and thicker also have slightly different meanings. Heaviness means emotional sadness that “weighs us down” while lightness means emotional happiness that “lifts us up”. Accordingly, there can be important uplifting or important poignant content. Accordingly, you can convey an important but lighthearted content with bigger yet thinner font, while you would convey an important but serious content with a bigger and thicker font.

Similarly, we can combine font size with serifs to indicate important and attractive and with sans serif to indicate important and informative. A bigger and narrower font indicates important and detailed, while a bigger and broader font indicates important and abstract. A bigger and angular font indicates importance and piercing while a bigger and smoother font indicates importance and soothing. A bigger and flatter font means important and stable, while a bigger and modulated means important and unstable.

This capacity to combine different font properties to produce more complex meanings implies that the stark divide between form and content doesn’t exist. Rather, the form itself tells us a lot about content, although the consistency of font styles and sizes in a text means that form conveys the overall state of the content while the words using those fonts indicate variations within that overall state.

Traditional vs. Modern

This ability to combine font properties is prominently seen when a combination of serif strokes, heaviness, modulation, broadness, and roundness is used to create traditional fonts, with extra heaviness in the serif strokes. A combination of sans serif, lightness, flatness, narrowness, and angularity is conversely used to create modern fonts, with extra lightness in the font body. Thereby, a combination of font qualities can also be used to communicate our ideas about the past, present, and future.

The implication of this styling is that one tends to think of the past as heavy, ornate, evolving, and overarching, and the present as light, factual, stable, and fragmented. Of course, this varies from one culture to another. If a culture views the past as lighter—i.e., less important—than the present, then they would make the traditional fonts lighter and the modern fonts heavier. It depends on how you are trying to narrate the past vs. the present difference. Most people, however, tend to depict the past as artistic, constantly evolving, and emotionally attractive, although less factual than the present. Accordingly, the traditional fonts tend to be heavy, modulated, broad, and rounded than the modern ones.

Culture and Context

This brings us to the variations in meaning based on cultures. Is the future brighter and elevating? If so, then lighter fonts will indicate not just brightness and elevation, but also the future. This is, however, culture-specific. In a culture that views the future as dark and depressing, the heavier fonts will indicate not just something somber and dim, but also the future. It is not that the future or the past are in themselves lighter or heavier. Rather, culture and context attach additional meanings to them.

Similarly, by using different font styles for different kinds of content, we can convey additional meanings by contrast. For instance, the main content is generally written in a different font than the footnotes. In general, the footnote will use a smaller and lighter font compared to the main text—assuming that the footnotes are indicating something peripheral or incidental to the main text. However, if the footnotes are as important as the rest of the text, then they would likely use the same font and style. One could also highlight the author, date, and name of the reference using a heavier font style and downplay the descriptive content of the footnote using a lighter font style. In all such situations, there is a possessed meaning of the text, namely, that it could be more or less important. But there is also a contextual meaning of the same text that arises due to contrast to the other text on the same page.

Thereby, various font quality combinations not only produce unique properties that have different effects but in contrast to other text properties, they acquire additional contextual meanings. In general, we use contrasts to accentuate the differences, but we could also downplay those differences by similarity (e.g., by using the same font style for the main text and the accompanying footnotes).

Accentuation and Suppression

Each quality also brings different meanings, some of which are accentuated by a quality combination or context, while others are suppressed by the combination or context. For example, heaviness has different meanings like unchanging and important. When heaviness is combined with modulation, then the connotation of unchanging is suppressed, because its opposite—modulation which indicates changes—becomes more prominent. Meanwhile, the connotation of importance is accentuated because the other meaning is suppressed. Heaviness in the combination with modulation simply means important but changing. For example, newspapers employ heavier but modulated fonts.

Likewise, lightness has different meanings such as frivolous and elevating. In combination with a flatter font, the frivolous connotation of lightness is suppressed, because its opposite—namely stability and consistency—is accentuated. Meanwhile, the connotation of elevating is accentuated, because the other meaning is suppressed. Lightness combined with a flatter font, therefore, means elevating but consistent. Academic journals for instance employ flatter and lighter fonts to convey this type of meaning.

Heavy and modulated (traditional story), light and modulated (fictional story), light and flat (evolving facts), and heavy and flat (unchanging facts) are other examples of psychological effects produced by style combination. Not only do we get new qualities by a combination of styles, we also suppress certain alternative connotations by quality combinations while accentuating the remaining connotations.

Complexity in Describing Qualities

When shapes are quantified—e.g., by digitizing fonts—we lose the understanding of their psychological effects because every shape has many possible meanings, some of which are selected, rejected, accentuated, or suppressed by the presence of other shapes. The existence of potential meanings undermines classical objectivity. And the selection, rejection, accentuation, or suppression depends on the order in which these shapes are combined. Both these ideas run contrary to numerical operations.

For example, when we add two numbers A and B, we assume that they are objectively fixed. We don’t treat them as many possible potentials, one of which would be selected, rejected, accentuated, or suppressed based on the presence of other potentials. Similarly, numerical operations are assumed to be associative, distributive, and commutative, neglecting the order of addition and multiplication. If order is paramount, then A + B ≠ B + A, A + (B + C) ≠ (A + B) + C, A x (B + C) ≠ A x B + A x C. That would imply that the arithmetic used for computing effects is not associative, distributive, or commutative.

When the reality being studied is a collection of potentials, whose combinations select, reject, accentuate, or suppress other potentials, then all quantification assumptions are flawed. This is when we have to reject the idea of quantification itself and rethink reality in terms of qualities.

The psychological effects of font styles cannot be captured by numerical techniques because the selection, rejection, suppression, and accentuation of effects run contrary to linear, quantitative, and reductionist thinking which assumes that something is either present or absent and cannot increase or decrease, appear or disappear, due to the presence or absence of another thing. If the presence of one thing selects, rejects, suppresses, or enhances another thing, then quantification collapses.

The Necessity of Qualities

Quality thinking overturns the notion of a fixed reality. It is still objective in the sense that the collection of all potentials is finite and fixed. However, it is not an object, in the sense that all potentials are not always manifest. Rather, the manifestation of properties depends on the order in which the parts are arranged within a whole, and how these parts and wholes interact with other parts and wholes. This thinking is still objective, and yet not about objects. Very specifically, it breaks quantification.

By tying the problem to form rather than content, we can see how the Aristotelian distinction between theoretical (objective) and practical matters (subjective) is false because font shapes themselves represent and cause varied subjective states. We cannot say that the geometric study of shapes fully captures their causal effects. And we cannot separate the unexplained effects from the shapes. In short, any kind of dualism—e.g., that between subject and object—is false. Likewise, the reduction of one side of the dualism to another—e.g., the subjective mental states to the quantification of arithmetic and geometry—is also patently inadequate.

This is a crisis of modern science as a whole because it entails the collapse of quantification. To overcome it, we have to rethink everything all over again—starting from shapes. We have to learn to describe shape itself in terms of qualities, rather than quantities. Shapes now require all psychological properties—heavy and light, rough and smooth, hard and soft, bitter and sweet. This is the only way to capture all the effects of shapes, which are easily and pervasively seen in font styles.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Psychology of Fonts," in Shabda Journal, May 22, 2022,