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J. TECHNICAL WRITING AND COMMUNICATION, Vol. 35(3) 291-315, 2005
HOWTOUSEFIVELETTERFORMSTO
GAUGEATYPEFACE’SPERSONALITY:
ARESEARCH-DRIVENMETHOD
JO MACKIEWICZ
University of Minnesota Duluth
ABSTRACT
Technical communicators need to select typefaces that match the tone that
they intend for a document. Rather than relying on intuition or personal
preference, technical communicators can use a research-driven approach to
analyze objectively the extent to which a typeface’s personality meshes
with the intended tone of a document. This study describes how technical
communicators can analyze a typeface’s uppercase J and its lowercase a, g, e,
and n letterforms—letterforms that are dense with anatomical information—
to gauge the extent to which a typeface will contribute a friendly or a
professional personality to a document. Technical communicators—both pro-
fessionals and students—who are armed with this knowledge can move
beyond “safe” typefaces like Times New Roman and Helvetica, selecting
instead typefaces whose anatomical features generate different kinds of
personalities.
TYPEFACE PERSONALITY AND DOCUMENT TONE
Recent research has pointed out that technical communicators should carefully
choose typefaces because typefaces substantially contribute to the visual, as
opposed to the verbal, language of documents. Typefaces do this through the
different “personalities,” or tones, that they convey [1-4]. As Strizver writes,
“Every typeface has a different personality, and the ability to convey different
feelings and moods. . . . [Typefaces] can evoke strength, elegance, agitation,
silliness, friendliness, scariness, and other moods” [5, p. 43]. Craig and Bevington
291
2005, Baywood Publishing Co., Inc.292 / MACKIEWICZ
agree, writing that “typefaces have personalities and convey different moods.
While a single, well-drawn typeface can be utilized for a variety of jobs, there
are occasions when specific projects seem to dictate a particular typeface...”
[6, p. 98]. It is important, then, that both professionals and students working
in technical communication consider the extent to which typefaces contribute
to and reinforce the tone that they intend for their documents.
Although typographers like Strizver, Craig, and Bevington recognize the
importance of typeface personality to document tone, books about typography—
intended to initiate typography students to the profession or to inspire established
typeface designers—are often limited in their discussion of typeface personality.
They tend toward vague characterizations of a few select typefaces. For example,
Earls writes that the typeface Lithium has a “modern, technological, electronic
style, while retaining a humane sensibility” [7, p. 41]. Gale writes that the typeface
Zero “was based on the pre-structured rhythms of music” [8, p. 91]. Neither
author explains how the typeface conveys these qualities.
Besides looking to books by and for typographers for answers, however,
technical communicators should make decisions about typeface personality that
are research-driven. As Rude writes, “Using type well is an art, but the principles
underlying the uses of type are also based on research" [9, p. 409]. Unfortunately,
little empirical research has examined typeface personality. A few older studies
found that people differentiate among typefaces and the personalities that those
typefaces convey [e.g., 10-13]. These studies, however, don’t investigate why
people assessed typefaces to have different personalities.
Recent research in technical communication also demonstrates that people
differentiate among typeface personalities. Brumberger studied people’s per-
ceptions of typefaces and texts in order to examine the appropriateness for and
impact of on texts [1]. Mackiewicz analyzed technical writing students’
perceptions of typefaces [3] and suggested some guidelines for technical writing
instructors who are introducing their students to typography [3-4]. There remains
a need, though, for research that examines the personality attributes people
assign to typefaces, explores people’s reasons for assigning those attributes to
different and investigates how different typefaces convey different
personalities. That is, there is a need for research that compares typefaces assessed
to have similar personalities to see whether those typefaces have any anatomical
features, or physical characteristics, in common. Such anatomical features likely
contribute to the that typefaces convey.
In this study, I describe how professionals and students in technical com-
munication can analyze the anatomical features of typefaces to gauge the per-
sonality a typeface contributes to a document. By analyzing five letters of a
typeface, technical communicators can better gauge the extent to which a par-
ticular typeface matches the intended tone of a document.
It should be noted at the outset that typeface anatomy is not the only variable
that contributes to typeface personality [4]. People associate typefaces with theGAUGING A TYPEFACE’S PERSONALITY / 293
contexts in which they are often seen, and these contexts lend their tone to
typefaces. For example, many people associate calligraphic typefaces with invita-
tions and copperplate typefaces with engraving. Therefore, many people consider
such typefaces to convey a sense of formality [14, p. 148; 15, p. 46]. In short,
typefaces carry the weight of their history-of-use with them, along with their
anatomical features.
In addition, the reading process melds a typeface’s personality with the per-
sonality of the document that contains it. As Brumberger states, “typefaces
and texts interact during the reading process, countering the notion that a
typeface will lend that personality to any document” [16, p. 22]. In other words,
it is not just that typefaces contribute personality to the documents that con-
tain them; it is also that documents contribute personality to the typefaces
within them. Brumberger goes on to say that “Although a group of readers
may consistently assign particular personality attributes to a particular typeface,
that typeface may not consistently color every text they read in the same way”
[16, p. 22].
Brumberger’s point cannot be disputed, but her insight should not impede the
process of understanding how typeface personality is generated and, conse-
quently, how it can be harnessed to imbue a document with friendliness and
professionalism, some combination of the two, or theoretically, whatever tone
a technical communicator intends. In other words, even though the method
described here is not foolproof, it at least offers a way to use objective analysis,
rather than intuition and personal preference, to gauge typeface personality.
RELYING ON INTUITION AND PERSONAL
PREFERENCE
The task of choosing a typeface that contributes to the intended tone of a
document rather than conflicting with it is not an easy one. Whether or not
a technical communicator has effectively matched a typeface personality to a
document, the personality of the typeface will come through [17, p. 29]. The
challenge, Goodman says, is to assess a typeface carefully in order “to take
advantage of the message(s) that a typeface’s personality offers regarding
the communication of the message” [17, p. 29]. Kunz agrees, stating that “All
typefaces serve fundamentally the same purpose: to communicate. The purpose
behind the communication—for example, to inform, to entertain, or to persuade—
is expressed, in part, by the typeface chosen. As the communication objectives
change, so might the typeface” [18, p. 22].
Until recently, technical communicators couldn’t look to empirical research
in trying to decide on a typeface. Brumberger points out the consequences of
this lack of empirical research: “Unfortunately, faced with a lack of empirical
guidelines, we [technical communicators] typically make design decisions based
on personal preference [or] intuition...” [16, pp. 17-18]. But selecting typeface294 / MACKIEWICZ
based on these methods is becoming increasingly problematic because technical
communicators have access to thousands of typefaces. Over 10,000 TrueType
fonts are available for free on one Website—www.fonts.com—alone [19]. In
addition, there are over 120,000 typefaces for sale [20]. Such a selection leaves
a lot of room for error in selecting an appropriate typeface if the technical
communicator bases the decision on personal preference or intuition. Indeed, as
Kunz writes, “Lacking analytical, consensual terms, decisions become based on
vague notions, ‘gut’ reactions, and unproven authority....The inevitable results
are not only less than optimal but— wanting constructive, critical tools—beyond
repair” [18, p. 9]. Kostelnick and Roberts agree, pointing out that “Text designed
in a style that doesn’t match the message may quickly alienate readers” [14,
p. 150]. Clearly, using personal preference or intuition to select a typeface can
muddle the message of a document.
Unfortunately, technical writing textbooks tend to be of little help, even though
many of them mention typeface personality or at least allude to the idea of
typeface tone. Riordan and Pauley address the issue explicitly, stating that
“Fonts have ‘personality’—some seem frivolous, some interesting, and some
serious and ‘workaday’” [21, p. 143]. Some textbooks authors don’t explicitly
mention ”personality,” but suggest the idea. One directs readers to “consider
criteria such as the purpose of the document, the image you want to convey, and
any information you have about reader preferences” when choosing a typeface
[22, p. 38]. The problem with textbooks’ treatments of typeface personality,
however, is that they fail to show how students should “consider” a typeface and
its personality. Houp et al., for example, warn readers that “Unusual typefaces
should be used with caution and only in appropriate situations” [23, p. 257].
Following their advice isn’t very difficult when it comes to avoiding display
typefaces like Cloister Black BT and Rubber Stamp, shown in Figure 1. These
two typefaces, like other display typefaces, are designed to be printed in large
type, usually 16-point type or larger. However, it is a more difficult task to
gauge the appropriateness of less ostentatious typefaces—text typefaces like
Perpetua and Californian FB—that are designed to be used in the body text of
documents (Figure 2). Such advice, then, raises the following question: how can
professionals and students in technical communication more effectively match a
typeface personality to a document? How can they avoid selecting an appropriate by the same method that Supreme Court Justice Stewart used to identify
pornography—by knowing it when they see it?
ANALYZING ANATOMICAL FEATURES
Rather than relying on intuition and personal preference, professionals and
students in technical communication can objectively analyze typefaces, scrutin-
izing a typeface’s anatomical features to gauge the extent to which a typeface
contributes a personality that matches the intended tone of a document. AnalyzingGAUGING A TYPEFACE’S PERSONALITY / 295
Figure 1. Examples of dislay typefaces:
Cloister Black BT and Rubber Stamp.
Figure 2. Examples of text typefaces:
Perpetua and Californian.
typeface anatomy, being able to “name parts that make up a character’s unique
quality,” provides a way “to express our opinions, evaluations, and judgments”
[24, p. 18]. The study presented here is intended to help professionals and students
make informed decisions when they choose typefaces for their documents. As
Kunz writes, “The uniqueness of each typeface is found in its microaesthetic
details. Selection of a typeface is most strongly influenced by these details, which
distinguish one typeface from another” [18, p. 20]. Toward the goal of helping
technical communicators analyze anatomical features of typefaces in order to
match different typefaces to different documents, I asked the following research
questions:
1. What personality attributes do various typefaces convey, according to study
participants’ assessments?
In cases where participants assessed typefaces to be similar in terms of some
personality attribute, I analyzed the anatomical features of the typefaces to see
whether those typefaces had any in common. My second
research question, then, was this:
2. Do typefaces assessed similarly for a particular attribute have any ana-
tomical features (i.e., physical characteristics) in common?
In trying to answer this question, I found a set of features that technical com-
municators can check to gauge the personality of a given typeface. By analyzing
the uppercase (or cap) J, along with the lowercase a, g, e, and n, technical
communicators can better select typefaces that fit their needs. In addition, and
beyond the practical purpose of helping technical communicators create the tone296 / MACKIEWICZ
they intend for their documents, this study is intended to advance the under-
standing of how different typefaces convey different personalities.
METHOD OF THE STUDY
To answer the first research question, I surveyed 62 undergraduate students.
The participants were enrolled in four writing classes: two freshman-level classes
and two upper-division classes. None of the participants had received any specific
training in typography or typeface personality. The participants were asked to
assess the personalities of 15 typefaces, listed alphabetically in Table 1. It is
important to note that participants were not told the names of the typefaces, as
typefaces names can signal the personalities typeface designers ascribe to them
(e.g., Script MT Bold). These 15 typefaces were chosen because they represent
a range of text and display typefaces, as well as typefaces that are not easily
classified as one or the other. For each of the 15 shown in Table 1, both
the lowercase and uppercase alphabets, numerals, and the sentence “The quick
brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” in 12-point type were presented to partici-
pants. The method used here closely follows Brumberger [1], and an example
is shown in Figure 3. Participants were asked to rate the 15 typefaces on 10
personality attributes; however, just two of these attributes are analyzed here:
“friendly” and “professional.” The professional attribute was singled out for
further analysis because this personality is clearly one that technical communi-
cators often need to convey. The friendly attribute was analyzed because this
personality is one that technical communicators often would like to convey,
but not at the risk of coming across as carefree or silly.
Participants were asked to rate the typefaces on 7-point Likert, or semantic
differential, scales (see [1] and [4] for a history of typography studies that
have employed semantic differential scales). This method allowed participants to
Table 1. The 15 Typefaces Presented in the SurveyGAUGING A TYPEFACE’S PERSONALITY / 297
Figure 3. An example of a typeface as presented
on the survey.
Figure 4. An example of a Likert scale as presented
on the survey.
rate the extent to which an adjective like “friendly” characterizes a particular
typeface. Figure 4 shows an example of a Likert scale used in the survey. Two
more types of information were gathered to triangulate the study and, more
importantly, to gain insight into why participants assigned particular ratings
to particular typefaces. One is qualitative data: written comments explaining
typeface ratings. That is, participants were asked to explain their highest and
lowest ratings, to discuss the sorts of documents in which they would expect
to see each typeface, and to discuss the sorts of documents in which they
might use each typeface. To help participants discuss where they would expect
to see the typefaces and how they might use the typefaces, participants were
provided with a list of document genres that included billboard advertisements,
business letters, instruction manuals, newspapers, greeting cards, Web sites,
and computer manuals.
After determining the typefaces that participants had rated highly on the
friendly and professional attributes and their explanations of these ratings, I
further triangulated the data by comparing participants’ assessments of those
typefaces to what typographers and authors of technical writing textbooks have
written about them. Although most authors say little about which particular
anatomical features contribute to particular personalities, the authors describe
some commonly-used typefaces like Bodini with labels like “classical” [25, p. 65].298 / MACKIEWICZ
Then, I compared the anatomical features of the typefaces rated highly on the
friendly and professional attributes to determine whether any patterns emerged.
Based on the similarities in the typefaces’ anatomical features, I developed a
method for assessing typeface personality by analyzing differences in the ana-
tomical features, or physical characteristics, of letterforms. Like Spiekermann
and Ginger, I believe that “scientifically minded people” will be interested in
understanding how “specific measurements, components, details, and propor-
tions” can be used to describe and analyze typefaces [25, p. 55].
In this analysis, I use five letterforms that are dense with anatomical infor-
mation. I use the uppercase J because it illustrates whether or not a typeface’s
uppercase letters sit on the baseline or dip below it, as shown in Figure 5. The J also illustrates the height of a typeface’s uppercase letterforms.
These two features contribute to a typeface’s personality. I analyze the lowercase
a, g, and e letterforms because they “contain the most design info” [6, p. 34].
I also analyze the lowercase n letterform because it clearly displays serifs (or
a lack thereof).
RATINGS ON THE FRIENDLY
AND PROFESSIONAL ATTRIBUTES
Participants’ ratings indicate that, overall, typefaces that were rated high on
the friendly attribute were rated low, under 3.00, on the professional attribute.
Typefaces rated high, over 5.00, on the professional attribute were rated about
4.00 on the friendly attribute, but their ratings rank them rather low—ninth,
tenth, and eleventh—out of the 15 typefaces for friendliness. However, as this
Figure 5. The anatomical features.GAUGING A TYPEFACE’S PERSONALITY / 299
analysis will show, the anatomical features that contribute to these personalities
can be “mixed” in a typeface that conveys both friendliness and professionalism.
As Figure 6 indicates, a typeface that mimics print handwriting, Bradley Hand,
received a high mean rating on the friendly attribute (5.55). This mean rating
contrasts sharply with Bradley Hand’s low mean ratings on the professional
attribute (2.12). It seems that the friendly personality of this typeface helps to
suppress any professional tone it could convey. Similarly, Comic Sans, another
typeface that mimics print handwriting, was rated second-highest on the
friendly attribute (5.52), but rated low on the professional attribute (2.30). Par-
ticipants’ written comments suggest that they saw these typefaces as useful
for friendly letters, instant messaging, and e-mail. Their comments also suggest
that because the Bradley Hand and Comic Sans resemble print handwriting,
the typefaces are “casual,” “less serious,” and, therefore, “not good for pro-
fessional writing.”
Courier New, a typeface that mimics the output of a typewriter, received the
lowest mean rating on the friendly attribute (2.95). Thus, the high and low
mean ratings for the friendly attribute demonstrate that mimicking typefaces
can convey quite different personalities, depending on the writing tools they
Figure 6. Ratings for the friendly and professional attributes.300 / MACKIEWICZ
invoke. Simulated print handwriting will contribute a quite different rhetorical
effect than simulated typewriter copy will.
In relation to the professional attribute, participants gave the highest ratings
to Times New Roman (5.45), Helvetica (5.17), and Century Schoolbook (5.11).
Participants stated that these typefaces were easy to read and were, therefore,
professional. One participant said that Times New Roman could be used in
“any lengthy passages that need good readability.” Another said that Helvetica
“seems professional because it is very rigid and easy to read.” Yet another
participant said about Century Schoolbook: “The writing seems to have definite
lines and spacing. It seems more professional because it is an easy to read
typeface.” These comments about typefaces’ readability correspond to what
authors of technical writing textbooks have said about typography in profes-
sional documents. Over and over again, they urge their readers to use readable
typefaces [e.g., 23, p. 252; 26, p. 242; 27, p. 344]. It seems that participants, in
noticing the degree to which a typeface was readable, noticed typeface anatomy
to some extent and associated the extent to which a typeface allowed easy reading
with its professionalism.
Yet another commonality in participants’ comments was the extent to which
they noted that professional typefaces lack anatomical features that stand out, a
finding that may be related to their comments about readability. One participant
wrote that Times New Roman is “very formal and professional” and that “it is
so plain that is becomes quite versatile.” Another wrote that there is “nothing
special about it.” Participants wrote similar comments about Helvetica, saying
that “It doesn’t jump out at you or grab you” and that there is “No excitement
in the letters.” Participants wrote similar comments about Century Schoolbook,
which was rated third highest on this attribute. They wrote that it is “pretty
bland” and that it displays “no drama.” Once again, participants’ assessments
are in line with what typographers and authors of technical writing textbooks
say about commonly used typefaces like Times New Roman and Helvetica.
For example, Riordan and Pauley write that “some typefaces frequently used
in reports and letters are Times, Helvetica, and Palatino, all of which appear
‘average’ or ‘usual’” [21, p. 143]. Spiekermann and Ginger say that Times
New Roman and Helvetica are characterized by a “lack of individualism” [25,
p. 65]. It seems, then, that there is a close relationship between a professional
personality and a lack of outstanding characteristics like the extra strokes in
the caps C, B, and T letterforms of Cloister Black BT (shown in Figure 1).
Because participants’ comments, as well as typographers’ and textbook
authors’ comments, suggest that a professional tone is created by neutrality or
a lack of distinction rather than any particular anatomical features, determining
the anatomical features that contribute to a professional personality may be a
more difficult task than determining those features that contribute to a friendly
personality. The analysis to follow suggests that this supposition, in part, bears
out. It is easier to delineate some of the features that contribute to a friendly