Not even your fonts are safe.
If it feels like everything has become politicized in these hyper-partisan times, there’s more where that came from: Researchers have found that people perceive certain fonts and font styles as more liberal and others as more conservative.
Serif fonts, or the ones with the little flourishes at the end of letters, are seen as more conservative, while sans serif fonts, the ones without the flourishes are seen as more liberal, according to a study published in the journal Communication Studies last month.
For example, study participants saw Times New Roman as more conservative than Gill Sans. Blackletter, which looks like it belongs on a newspaper masthead, was seen as the most conservative font, while Sunrise, a cartoonish-looking script, was seen as the most liberal.]
“If you think about serifs being used in more formal types of print or communications, maybe they’re viewed as more traditional and sans serifs are viewed as more modern,” Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communications at Virginia Tech and the lead author of the study, told CNN. “There’s a small but significant difference in how people perceive these fonts.”
People also tended to view fonts that they liked as more aligned with their own ideology.
The more that Republicans liked a font, the more conservative they thought it was. The more Democrats liked a font, the more liberal they thought it was — a phenomenon known as “affective polarization.”
Haenschen decided to look into whether fonts can be seen as liberal or conservative after noticing something peculiar while driving through Virginia.
A candidate running for state legislature was using different signs in rural areas than he was in a more liberal college town.
Haenschen used to work on political campaigns, so she said she knew there had to be a reason behind the varying signs.
So she turned to her co-author Daniel Tamul, also an assistant professor of communications at Virginia Tech, and the two decided to test the theory to find out.
Turns out, there was something to it.
Haenschen and Tamul conducted two experiments to shed light on the topic.
For the first, 987 participants were shown the phrase “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” in one of six fonts and styles: Times New Roman regular, Times New Roman bold, Times New Roman italic, Gill Sans regular, Gill Sans bold or Gill Sans italic.
Because the phrase that participants were shown was neutral and didn’t contain a political message in itself, researchers were able to test whether the font itself was actually influencing people’s perceptions.
Participants then rated the various fonts as liberal or conservative, and answered questions about their political party affiliations, their political ideologies, age, gender and race.
For the second experiment, 1,069 participants were shown either the phrase “A large fawn jumped quickly” or the name “Scott Williams” in one serif font (Jubilat or Times New Roman), one sans serif font (Gill Sans or Century Gothic) and one display font (Sunrise, Birds of Paradise or Cloister Black Light).
Jubilat was the font that Bernie Sanders used in his 2016 presidential campaign, while Century Gothic was similar to a font that Barack Obama used in his 2008 presidential campaign, researchers said.
So naturally, Jubilat was viewed as more liberal than Times New Roman, even though they’re both serif fonts. And Century Gothic was viewed as more liberal than Gill Sans, even though they’re both sans serif fonts.
“Even within font families, there are differences in how voters are perceiving them,” Haenschen said.
Researchers didn’t look at why exactly people viewed certain fonts as more liberal or conservative, but Haenschen said that’s something that could be explored in future studies.
So what do we do with the knowledge that even fonts are seemingly no longer neutral?
If you’re someone who works on a political campaign, there are a few implications, Haenchen said.
For one, candidates running for political office should work with professional designers when designing their campaign materials to choose fonts that will be effective.
Secondly, designers should think about whether the fonts they’re using convey any sort of political quality, and whether that political quality aligns with that candidate’s message.
Generally though, the effect that fonts have on people’s perceptions is relatively small, Haenschen said.
For example, if Bernie Sanders changed the font on his campaign materials, there probably wouldn’t be much of a difference in how people see him because he’s already a widely known figure.
The choice of font could, however, make a difference for a new candidate, like someone running for school board, town council or state legislature, Haenschen said. While researchers don’t know for sure whether a font would change people’s perceptions of a candidate, that’s another question that could be explored in the future.
“Does support for something like the Green New Deal change if we market it in a conservative versus a liberal font? I don’t know, and that’s something worth exploring,” she said.
No, the Green New Deal is a stupid idea regardless of font choice.
For what it’s worth, I have switched two newspapers and one magazine from Times to New Century Schoolbook, because the latter has a larger X-height (size of each character) and is therefore easier to read.
In fact I’ve never used Gill Sans for anything, just because I don’t like how it looks. My preference for headlines is a Franklin Gothic variant, in part because it may be named for my favorite Founding Father.
There may be something to this serif vs. sans serif thing, though.
The headline is a serif font. The subhead isn’t, but it’s in authoritative ALL CAPS.