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Typography fonts inspire heated aesthetic arguments, but what is their effect on learning?

An editor I’ve worked with in the past uses Comic Sans font for his e-mails.

An editor I’ve worked with in the past uses Comic Sans font for his e-mails. I’ve always thought it suits him well, for his e-mails are informal but clever — and often quite funny.  I considered switching to Comic Sans myself, but my e-mails, alas, tend to be humdrum — more suitable to that uninteresting workhorse of a font, Times New Roman.

But after reading Dave Munger’s recent column in Seed Magazine about the psychology of fonts and how they can affect learning and comprehension, I may need to rethink my e-mail font choice, particularly if I want my messages to be better understood.

“While there have been decades of research on readability — how quickly a font can be processed, and how much information is retained over the short term — it’s only recently that researchers have started to take a closer look at the relationship between fonts and real understanding,” writes Munger.

And that’s where Comic Sans comes in. Does such a font — one that imitates handwriting and is thus more difficult to read — enhance or impede learning?

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Munger cites two conflicting studies. In the first, published in 2008,

[r]esearchers Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz developed two versions of a handout designed to motivate students to exercise regularly. One was composed in basic Arial, while the other used the casual Brush font (like Comic Sans, a font meant to mimic handwriting). The students who read about exercise in Arial were significantly more enthusiastic about exercising than those who read in Brush. In a separate experiment, the researchers found similar results for a set of instructions on how to roll sushi.

This study was hailed by Comic Sans haters. (They’re a surprisingly large group, especially among graphic designers. Who knew fonts could elicit such disdain or such wit?) But then, earlier this month, a study published in the journal Cognition by another team of researchers seemed to come to the defense of Comic Sans and similar fonts, at least in terms of reading comprehension. Writes Munger:

The researchers, led by Connor Diemand-Yauman, asked 28 student volunteers to read about hypothetical alien species from a sheet printed in either 16-point Arial, 12-point Bodoni, or, yes, 12-point Comic Sans. The larger Arial font was much more legible than the other two versions, but in a quiz 15 minutes later, students reading the Bondoni or Comic Sans versions were significantly more accurate in recalling details about the aliens.

The researchers got similar results in a follow-up experiment that used actual documents handed out in an Ohio high school. Students who prepared for tests with the less legible materials (including ones with the text purposively blurred) scored better than those who studied from the easier-to-read handouts.

Why? Perhaps, as science writer Jonah Lehrer has proposed, when something is less legible, we’re forced to read it more slowly and more carefully. Munger, however, thinks the somewhat conflicting results from these two studies may be because the documents served different purposes: to increase enthusiasm (for exercise and sushi rolling) in one and to enhance the retaining of facts in the other.

“And in all of these cases, we’re talking only about very short documents,” he adds. “In longer works like books, legibility may have a different effect. Might readers lose stamina after endless chapters of barely-legible text?”

I know I would.

Of course, with the advent of e-readers, we’re no longer tied to the font whims of book designers. Some e-reader apps and devices allow us to pick and choose among a handful of fonts. As yet, though, the oft-scorned Comic Sans does not appear to be among them.

You can read Munger’s article (in what font?) here.