The psychology of fonts is a fascinating field that can help designers better create lasting work that impacts audiences and customers.
The wrong fonts can hamper the success of a design, just as the right fonts can help a plan connect to an audience. Utilizing font psychology in your design process can separate fine designs from genuinely great ones.
What is Font Psychology?
Font psychology is a fascinating theory about how fonts and typefaces can generate emotional responses. Things like shapes and colors have been shown to have specific cognitive associations in people, so it stands to reason that fonts would also.
Canva has a substantial write-up on Font Psychology, so we’ll crib from it just a bit. In their explanation, “font psychology [is] the study of how different fonts impact thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” Specific font styles carry associations and moods that others do not. Various font elements can create subtle psychological associations between the font and the mood the font generates in you. For example, if you see something written in a serif, such as the stately Times New Roman, you may already associate it with severe and businesslike aesthetics.
That is the essence of font psychology – how types of fonts look can make a design, and more to the point, you feel a certain way.
Why is Font Psychology Important?
The importance of font psychology is two-fold. First, it helps you to choose the best typeface for your designs. Secondly, it allows you to avoid the worst typefaces for your designs. Understanding font psychology even a little bit helps you to create more cohesive, practical designs.
A typeface can heavily influence audience perception. Imagine a chic, modern fashion magazine cover. Now imagine that the font choice for the logo was based on Comic Sans. It doesn’t make sense at all. In fact, for some, it may even be offputting. Understanding font psychology gives you more control over how your designs are interpreted.
Psychology of Major Font Styles
When it comes to significant font styles, there are all sorts of considerations. Whether they’re simple fonts or creative fonts, they can all generally be classified into a few specific categories. We’ve explored this topic in a previous article on font types, but here’s what you need to know to understand font psychology as we advance.
Here are the essential things to know about different font categories and the psychology of typography.
The serif typeface may be the most classical of the font styles designers deal with. It’s not the oldest by any measure. Still, it has become a standard style for legitimacy and professionalism. Dashes most easily identify serif fonts along the top and bottom of letterforms.
Traditional serif fonts tend to be easily read. It’s because of this accessibility that they’re so common in printed materials such as business trends.
Think of the types of fonts you’d expect from law firms and insurance companies, and you already know why serif fonts are so well-regarded. They have quite a timeless quality.
The sans serif typeface is a typeface that can carry an incredible range of styles – more so than serif fonts. Many of the most popular modern fonts tend to be sans serif. They have the readability of serif styles but without the old dashes along the characters.
Sans serif fonts can be described as cleaner and more modern, which presents forward-thinking psychological effects. If serifs are the past, then sans serif fonts are the future. When you think of tech companies and fonts for posters, you may be feeling more like sans serifs.
Related reading: Serif vs. Sans Serif Fonts
Slab serif fonts tend to be lumped in with serifs but have their own psychology in action. Slab serif fonts are powerful fonts and a trendy choice for modern design. They carry a sense of serif tradition but also feel modern.
These angular fonts take advantage of blocky feet and dashes on their letterforms. They also tend to be bold fonts, more prominent than traditional serifs.
If a serif is a classic font because of a sense of tradition and stateliness, a slab serif is authoritative because of the emotional reaction of strength it conveys.
Slab serifs are popular because they have a sturdier, more rugged appearance that works as a bold font. A slab serif is a powerful font for logos and headings that pair well with serifs and sans serifs.
Script fonts are the most casual and organic of the various types of styles out there. These fonts range from friendly and handwritten appearance to more elegant and challenging cursive. Script fonts, in many ways, feel more personable, akin to your handwriting, especially if you write in cursive. Such fonts tend to have many flourish and curves, such as swatches. Many handwritten fonts fit under the script style.
The calligraphic style of script fonts tends to convey emotion and sophistication. There’s a certain romance to swooping loops of signature-style fonts. They’re more visually complex than serifs and sans serifs, making them less optimal choices for large swathes of text, such as body paragraphs. Consider these for emotionally impactful logos.
Decorative or Display
Decorative and display fonts are among the most diverse and can convey an incredible range of psychological impressions. Fonts with handwritten, blackletter, and gimmick styles are a wide variety of fonts in this category.
In most cases, these display fonts are used for logotypes of hero text and are usually designed with specific moods implied. If a font features oozy and dripping characteristics, it’s likely meant to evoke an uneasy mood.
Additional Factors to Consider
The font type isn’t the only consideration of font psychology, either. Other design and font usage aspects greatly influence how your audience interprets a font.
Familiarity with the Font
Some fonts are so well known they carry associations that can be difficult to shake. At these times, such fonts may be chosen because of those associations, but at other times using those fonts may put an audience off.
Take, for example, the infamous case of Papyrus. A font that is so well known that even when associated with the logo of one of the biggest movies of all time, it was notable enough to result in a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch. Papyrus is such a noteworthy font and overused that it has become a parody of itself.
On the other hand, the familiarity of the font can be a psychological benefit. Helvetica is still a timeless, trusted font for any modern-design project and a good choice for many.
A font’s size can also factor into the psychological association of a font. Take, for example, brutalist design, where large, blocky sans serifs may be used for headlines and logotypes. Such stark discrepancies in size can be read as imposing and most definitely draw the eye.
With smaller fonts, like those used in supplemental text and disclaimers, such a choice to work with such small sizes may be seen as disingenuous or trying to get one over on the audience.
However, robust typography design can leverage variations of font sizes, mainly when a font style is used for specific structural and organizational cues, such as headers and sections.
The weight and line style of the font also carries psychological implications. For example, culturally speaking, underlines in website design are universally a signal of a hyperlink – using underlines in a design without it using a hyperlink almost feels like a broken promise.
Meanwhile, bold and italic styles can have different emphases that affect how an audience interprets a font. Some fonts take to certain types more readily than others and end up “feeling” more correct.
A thick-stemmed, block font like the iconic Impact doesn’t look right when italicized or bolded. It’s already a pretty beefy font. However, more neutral, baseline fonts such as Arial and Times New Roman take to these styles much better and more naturally. This is also true of modern fonts like Roboto and Calibri.
Lastly, color psychology can become an aspect of font psychology. Color Psychology is a website that carries an in-depth guide to the associations made with specific colors and is worth a bookmark. We also have an article that covers the psychology of color in web design.
When it comes to your typography designs, combining all of the preceding factors is supplemented by color choices. However, it’s not unusual for color choices to have an overwhelming effect on how your typography can be interpreted. Color creates some of the most dramatic psychological responses in humans.
A great example of this emotional response is seen in the color yellow and variations thereof. Yellow can imply optimism and joy. Combining yellow with an edgier font, such as a blackletter, may create an unpleasant contradictory feeling. In contrast, yellow may work better on a more optimistic script font, such as a handwritten font.
A single font will not cut it for most design projects. Good design is built on contrast – a critical element of a designer’s toolkit. Contrast can apply to color, shape, and size, and it can especially apply to typography.
One of the best ways to utilize contrast with your fonts is through font combinations. Think of any design you’ve seen lately, and consider how it utilizes text. You can have multiple fonts in combination that help convey a message and psychology.
Even businesses with a single logo end up using various fonts. Just because there’s one font for the name of a store doesn’t mean that the ads and promotions on the windows will use the same font exclusively.
If your design only uses a single font, you could improve it through contrast through font combination.
Use Font Psychology to Improve Your Designs
As we’ve seen in multiple examples above, a font can carry specific associations. You can use these associations or react to them to create inspiring and influential designs – this is the advantage of understanding font psychology.
When looking for fonts, you likely already have an idea of what you are looking for, usually because of the type of feeling associated with the font you seek. This is how font psychology works. It comes naturally to many designers but can be refined further, like any talent.
Frequently Asked Questions
Typography can be a visual shorthand to convey mood in a text-heavy design. Even a simple black-and-white book page can be radically influenced by typography in all its forms. A font’s characteristics can influence a reader’s reaction to words, logos, and other text elements.
Most fonts convey meaning or have particular associations. For example, rounder shapes on a typeface may make a font appear gentler. Meanwhile, serif-based fonts may appear more stately or professional. When designing, font choice can be a great way to create a mood or feeling.
When working on a text-based design, you can likely make a more attractive choice for most audiences by leaning toward sans-serif or script fonts. Sans serif fonts tend to be more open and inviting than more rigid ones. Meanwhile, script fonts have a more energetic, looser feeling that can put viewers at ease.
Final Thoughts on the Psychology of Fonts
The psychology of fonts is fascinating to consider from a design perspective. Once you understand that fonts can convey specific emotional responses and moods, it becomes easy to figure out how to establish a tone in your work quickly. Even more fun, you can look at other uses of fonts in day-to-day life on business signage and publications and understand how they work and how they can sometimes be improved.