Baskerville bullshit?

After having the same article tweeted, facebooked, emailed, posted, mentioned to me, and a few days trying to piece together a messy collection of hyperlinks and pages, I prepared the following article review. And as far as bullshit goes, a good scientist can’t say that. It was just a hook. In order to support or refute the claims of this study you would need access to the same materials and data.

In one sentence
A short passage set in the typeface Baskerville was found to be more believable than the same passage set in five other typefaces.

APA citation
E. Morris. (2012, August 08) Hear, all ye people; Hearken, o Earth (part one) [Web log post]. Retrieved from

What did they change?

What typefaces did they use?
Computer Modern
Comic Sans

What did they measure?
Reader’s agreement or disagreement with a statement about a passage.
Reader’s confidence with their agreement or disagreement.

Who did they test?
Readers of The New York Times blog: The Opinion Pages
~10,000 people clicked on the article.
~50,000 people took the quiz.
45,524 data sets were used for statistical analysis.
No demographic data was reported.

Experimental design
Unknown. It is not reported if subjects took the test more than once — “If you have taken it before, please take it again.” (Morris, 2012). As such, a repeated-measures mixed-subjects design is most likely.

Why did they do this?
To determine if typeface influences the believability of a passage of text.

What did they do?
Subjects read a 368 word blog post on The New Your Times blog, The Opinion Pages. Within the post was an 80 word passage about an asteroid’s near collision with Earth. Through use of a computer program, the passage within the post was presented in one of six different typefaces: Baskerville, Computer Modern, Comic Sans, Trebuchet, Helvetica, and Georgia. An the end of the post readers were asked two questions; One, if they agreed or disagreed with a claim in the passage “…we live in an era of unprecedented safety…” and a second, asking how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the claim.

What did they find?
Subjects found the passage set in the typeface Baskerville to be more believable than compared to the other five other typefaces.

What does this mean?
If the simple act of taking the time to choose an appropriate typeface has the potential to influence readers’ perception of your credibility, perhaps it would behoove you to case the joint before you B & E.

Despite the number of datasets analyzed, given that the test was administered online, it is not possible to determine how many individual actually actually took the test. Especially given Morris’ (2012) request in the original post “If you have taken it before, please take it again.”

The passage itself is also very short at 80 words. This  and there is the possible confound of an interaction between typeface and content. For example, if Comic Sans could be the winner if the passage was about clowns.

In addition to this, objective measures of human performance such as time to read, and comprehension accuracy, were not reported, making it difficult to determine the validity of subjects’ responses.

Of special note, data analyst David Dunning of the Department of Psychology of Cornell University admirably acknowledged several potential criticisms of this study in his statement “You are collecting these data in an uncontrolled environment (who knows, for example just how each person’s computer is rendering each font, how large the font is, is it on an iPad or iPhone, laptop or desktop), are their kids breaking furniture in the background, etc. So to see any difference is impressive.” By this he means that in an uncontrolled environment, the fact that everyone is using a different device, has a different education, speaks a different language &c could potentially nullify the effects of changing the typeface. In this case, it did not. And Dunning’s lay-person description of statistical analysis is one of the best plain-language examples I have ever seen. I look forward to reading follow-up studies.

You wouldn’t happen to have an extra $30,000.00 of grant money kicking around would you?


Further reading
Brumberger, E. (2004). The rhetoric of typography: Effects on reading time, reading comprehension and perception of ethos. Technical Communication 51(1), 13–24.

2 Responses to Baskerville bullshit?
  1. Christopher Dean
    September 24, 2012 | 13:58

    Now all I need to do is somehow figure out how to let users attach photos. For now simply email them to me:

    Subject line, Helvetica Diet_whatever

  2. Christopher Dean
    September 24, 2012 | 14:02

    For the time being, you can do it oldschool with Picture Name

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