The font you choose says as much as the words you write

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #632  December 4-10, 2001, The High Tech Office column

You are how you write... or at least, what font you choose to write with.

That's the claim of psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman in a study commissioned by printer manufacturer Lexmark.

While professional page designers may spend much time choosing just the right type style for each project, most of us stick with a favourite font or two, chosen from the list that came on our computers or was installed with a new piece of software.

Just as many people personalize their answering machine messages as a means of self-expression, what font we choose tells others a lot about us. An incongruity between content and font choice can reduce the impact of your message.

In The social and emotional connotations of fonts, Sigman suggests that users of soft, curvy fonts want others to see them as sex kittens. 

Courier is reminiscent of old-style computer print-outs or manual typewriters. Using it, according to Sigman, is akin to showing up at a job interview in comfortable but worn old shoes and a sweater.

Users of plain and simple styles such as Arial (the single most popular font) or Universe are looking for safety and anonymity. Prince Charles reportedly prefers the similar, but more classic Helvetica font.

Handwriting fonts, he reports, were often chosen by banks and other large corporations hoping to appear personal and friendly. Now there's often a rebound effect; readers wonder what you're trying to hide.

Choose Comic Sans (as I tend to), and you're telling the world that you're looking for attention. Times-styled fonts, the default in most word processor programs, suggests a person hoping to be perceived as trustworthy and respectable, according to the good doctor.

Sigman offers two rules for important documents:

n Size matters. Large font sizes, he claims, suggest a writer who is too insecure to leave any of the page unfilled. Use a small font size (let's say 11 points) and a minimalist font for power letters.

n Match the font to the message. There are times when you may want to choose a font to stand out from the crowd, but be very careful of what message your font sends.

Classic serif fonts such as Times are conservative and traditional, while sans serif fonts such as Arial appear more contemporary. Sigman suggests matching the font to the potential employer in résumés and job application letters.

Love letters would benefit from fonts with big rounded Os and friendly looking tails. True italics, not just the tilted letters that you often get when this style is chosen, can help provide a softer emotional quality. For Dear John letters, Sigman notes that italics or handwriting fonts may give the recipient unwarranted hope.

Choice of font can also help convey a nonverbal message in a resignation letter. A font combining professional and human qualities (Sigman offers New York or Verdana as examples) would be a good choice in leaving a job you enjoyed. If, however, the job was hell, it might be a good time to use that otherwise scorned font Courier; presumably the same qualities that make it a favourite of nerds everywhere let it communicate coldness, covering up your anger and hurt.

(Sigman notes that Eddie George, the governor of the Bank of England, is rumoured to stick to Courier, perhaps as a way of demonstrating that he is beyond conventions.)

Sigman concludes that "advertisers have grown to feel that the type of font chosen is crucial to their message." He suggests that the rest of us should give our use of fonts the same sort of attention. If we don't, our readers will, consciously or not, draw their own conclusions. 

You can find Sigman's study online at:

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan