Comic sans vs arial: this may surprise you

IN CLASS LAST WEEK, I was asked when it would be appropriate to use the typeface many designers love to hate, Comic Sans. I answered, with only a hint of sarcasm, “When you’re designing a comic.”

I may have to eat my words.

In this extract from a New York Times article we learn the following about legible typefaces and comprehension:

In a recent study published in the journal Cognition, psychologists at Princeton and Indiana Universities had 28 men and women read about three species of aliens, each of which had seven characteristics, like “has blue eyes,” and “eats flower petals and pollen.” Half the participants studied the text in 16-point Arial font, and the other half in 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT, both of which are relatively unfamiliar and harder for the brain to process.

[Below: An example of the typefaces used in the test. Comic Sans, top, and Arial.]

After a short break, the participants took an exam, and those who had studied in the harder-to-read fonts outperformed the others on the test, 85.5 percent to 72.8 percent, on average.

To test the approach in the classroom, the researchers conducted a large experiment involving 222 students at a public school in Chesterland, Ohio. One group had all its supplementary study materials, in English, history and science courses, reset in an unusual font, like Monotype Corsiva. The others studied as before. After the lessons were completed, the researchers evaluated the classes’ relevant tests and found that those students who’d been squinting at the stranger typefaces did significantly better than the others in all the classes — particularly in physics.

“The reason that the unusual fonts are effective is that it causes us to think more deeply about the material,” a co-author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton, wrote in an e-mail. “But we are capable of thinking deeply without being subjected to unusual fonts. Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully.”

Then again, so will raw effort, he and other researchers said. Concentrating harder. Making outlines from scratch. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another.

The payoff may go beyond a higher grade.

“Students these days are on a treadmill, there’s so much going on in their lives,” Dr. Bjork said. “But monitoring learning is not simply a matter of a higher G.P.A., it’s more efficient — potentially a great savings in time.”

And so fellow typographers, perhaps it is time to reevaluate everything we have previously learned about legibility and to consider making type less readable in future … or not.

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