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The Psychology of Fonts

Fonts tell stories. They tell such powerful stories that studies have found fonts can actually change the way people perceive the taste of food. Researchers tested individuals on the flavors of sweets when the only difference in the sweets was the font used on the packaging. Turns out people felt the sweets from packages with smooth rounded fonts were the sweetest, and the packages with the jagged font contained the sourest candies. (The candies were exactly the same.)

Just as clothing tells a story and creates an impression, so do fonts. Business suits at the beach or fancy script fonts on kid’s shampoo give people a certain idea about what’s inside, and that may not be the impression you want to make. Consider your fonts – and the emotions they evoke – carefully.

What Does that Mean in the Real World?

Many beauty product labels use fonts with tall, thin clean lines, because these fonts subconsciously evoke the image of height and slenderness in consumers’ minds – in the same way that heavy thick fonts make people think of strength and solidity. These heavier fonts are frequently used in sports fitness products aimed at men.

A cool study by Choi & Kang, discussing semantic associations, compares responses to four different ads. Each set of two ads contains the same picture, with the same two fonts. The only difference was the text. One set of two images had text about how thin the phone was. The other set of two images both had text on how elegant the phone was. They found that people responded more positively to the “slim phone” ad with the thin typeface, and to the “elegant phone” ad when the font type was, you guessed, more elegant. The font matched readers’ expectations, given the text, and they responded to that.

Making Font Choices

Three fonts, three feelings

Kaushan Script, GoodDog Cool, and Skia Black Condensed

If you were choosing labels for expensive chocolate, would you use the second or third fonts here? Probably not – the top script font better expresses the idea of luxury or exclusivity. I can see the second one being used for a healthy after-school snack for kids, a fun party appetizer, or the like. The bottom font might best suited to something like beef jerky, a heavy-duty energy bar, something solid and filling. Anything else may not match up with what consumers expect.

Before you choose a font, you should think about:

  • What product you are labeling – food, cosmetics, toys or games, auto parts? Each of these might do better with fonts that match up with the contents.
  • Where the font is going to be used – is the background is dark, or busy? Thin fonts may not appear as clearly as you want, depending on the size of the label and the text. You may need a more prominent font than if the label is clear or white, for example.
  • Who the labeled item is for – men, women, kids, business users, home consumption? Each of these has fonts that are more suited than others.
  • How you want people to feel about the product – is it fun, fashion-forward, modern, luxurious, businesslike, homey, etc.?

Font Associations

serif -vs- sans serif
The big division in fonts is serif -vs- sans serif. Serif fonts have small decorative lines at the ends of some characters, sans serif do not. Most of the research seems to show that serif fonts are easier to read in print, and sans serif fonts are easier to read on a screen, but plenty of labels use sans serif for dramatic effect.

Because the surface area of most labels is small, it probably doesn’t matter which you use, as long as the font works with the text, the contents, and the rest of the design.

Both serif and sans serif include fonts with “personalities” that call up associations in people’s minds. Is your product something that is friendly and homey, or stylish and expensive? Is it heavy with tradition, or sleek and modern? Fonts can help get those messages across to consumers. In the US, there are font associations already set up in many people’s minds – Helvetica is used in US tax forms, so it feels serious and official. Courier was designed to look typewritten, so it feels traditional and historical.

Matching Personalities

There are some fonts that we recommend avoiding, either because they are just too hard to read, or they have been overused. You can fall back on the usual suspects (Helvetica, Geneva, Arial, Times New Roman, Courier, Garamond), but it might be time to branch out and try some new ones.

Looking for an elegant font? Look at

elegant fonts

Trustworthy, upright, honest?

trustworthy fonts

Open and friendly?

Modern and clean?

Fun or flirty?

These are just suggestions, of course. There are some great font repositories online, where you can search for fonts that speak to you. Check out Google Fonts or Font Squirrel to see the amazing number of available fonts. Font Squirrel also has a “font identifier” – you can upload an image, outline the text you’re curious about, and they can usually tell you what font it it.

And just a note about those fonts to avoid. For sure, skip Comic Sans, Papyrus, Brush Script, Curlz, and Impact. These all seem to be on the vast majority of “most hated” font lists!

Further Reading

Fonts are both fun and fascinating. If you want to read more about the psychology of fonts, the links below are good places to start.

Wake Up and Smell the Fonts Sarah Hyndman, TEDxBedford (video)

10 Fascinating Scientific Facts about Fonts

Discover the emotional life of fonts

Font Moods: Emotions Elicited by Different Types of Fonts

The Effects of Typeface on Advertising and Brand Evaluations: The Role of Semantic Congruence (referenced earlier in the post)

Psychology of Font Choices (infographics)

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