In 2013, acclaimed filmmaker and author Errol Morris ran a bold experiment. With the collusion of the New York Times, he asked 45,000 readers to take an online test. The test allegedly measured whether or not readers were optimists or pessimists. But in reality, Morris was trying to find out if the typeface a statement was written in had any impact on a reader’s willingness to agree with that statement. Simply put, are some typefaces more believable than others? The answer is yes. Baskerville … was statistically more likely to influence the minds of readers.
As one might expect, the results of Morris’s experiment got a lot of attention from both inside and outside the design world. As much as I love to see typography leak into the mainstream media, I found this search for the most truthworthy typeface to be especially untrustworthy, despite coming from a man whose work I otherwise respect. What disappointed me most was the weak methodology behind the experiment. The typefaces selected for the test were Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. Why these six? Morris tells Co.Design:
“I’d like to say there’s something that really went into it, that was scientific, and I wanted a combination of serif and sans serif fonts, so we picked three of each. It could have been more, but we picked six. Why those six? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Yikes. That is less than rigorous. It’s not so surprising Baskerville performed best among this bunch. Only Georgia and Helvetica were any competition at all — the others being very poorly drawn, much less readable, not intended for long texts, or all of the above.
Co.Design concludes their Morris interview with this question: “have the results of your Baskerville experiment changed the typefaces you use?”
“Oh yes, I’m drinking my own Kool-Aid now. I used to write all of my manuscripts in Bembo. Now I write them in Baskerville.”
Um, but Bembo was not even part of your test! What if Bembo is really the most trustworthy of all?!
Oh well, at least Pentagram made something handsome out of this pile of poop:
“The results of Morris’s experiment were published online in a two-part essay called Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth! and have now been put into print, as the 44th edition of the Pentagram Papers, the monograph that the design firm Pentagram sends to an exclusive list of individuals each year. Pentagram partner and long-time Morris collaborator Michael Bierut put together the typographically exquisite monograph, with with the help of designer Jessica Svendsen.”
To Morris’ credit, once you get past the triviality of the experiment, his essay tells a fascinating and humanizing tale of the man behind the 18th-century typeface, John Baskerville. I was very pleased to see that Bierut and Svendsen added some authenticity by using the only digital Baskerville that comes anywhere close to Mr. Baskerville’s original type: František Štorm’s Baskerville Original. The family has two size-specific masters: “120” for large type, “10” for small. These “optical sizes” emulate the physical design compensations of metal type, allowing headlines to be delicate and showy, while body text is open, sturdy, and readable. All other digital Baskervilles have only one size, often traced from the face of some mid-range size, making it too feeble for text yet lacking the elegance of a titling face.
I haven’t yet seen Pentagram’s book in person, but it looks like a fun piece. I hope somewhere amid Morris’ history of Baskerville they included some facts about the actual fonts they used to set the text — facts which are potentially just as interesting to those who care to read a book about the effects of typeface choice.