Font Psychology – Reading Between the Lines

Font Psychology - Reading Between the Lines | Jenn Wells Design

Confession: I’m not a huge typography nerd. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with some friends about the fonts used in an ultra hipster café we brunched in. I was happily going on about the quirkiness of fat-face fonts when they started naming their favorite sans serif fonts and I realized I was in over my head.

I can’t tell the difference between Helvetica and Ariel. If you put them side by side on the page, sure, I’ll see that there’s a difference. But I don’t see one or the other and instantly know what it is. To me it just looks like a general, nondescript font that isn’t going to piss anyone off too badly or draw an excessive amount of attention. Perfect for body copy where you want the focus on the meaning rather than the appearance.

Which is not to say typography doesn’t matter. Don’t believe me? Check out the the previous paragraph in PT Sans and Papyrus.

Paragraph comparison in PT Sans and Papyrus fonts | Jenn Wells Design

See some readability issues with the paragraph on the right? I mean, not only is it Papyrus, which is a font that bothers me even more than Comic Sans, but Papyrus is terrible for body copy. The letter spacing isn’t optimal, and that ragged “distressed” edge takes away the contrast we need to be able to scan text quickly.

The Psychology

Beyond the obvious legibility issues, fonts are a huge part of what sets the tone of a particular design. For example, a study on font legibility compared people’s expectations when given a set of instructions that was easy or hard to read. The people given instructions that were more difficult to read also estimated that the task described would take longer!

Similarly, a follow up study showed that when a product is described with a harder-to-read font, we assume that more effort went into it. So using “fancy” fonts comes with a trade-off. People are less likely to read your materials BUT the ones who do will be willing to pay more for what they assume are higher quality products.

In addition to “quality” or “time consuming,” fonts can convey other feelings and emotions. An article by YouTheDesigner breaks down a few global brands to show how each conveys a particular feel. Disney aims for magic and family fun while FedEx portrays a feeling of tight reliability.

I won’t do an overview of sans vs serif fonts, because it’s been done in much greater detail than I would ever care to. Suffice it to say that fonts DO matter, and they can give your brand any kind of feel you want, from friendly to businesslike, mystical to pragmatic, and so much more.

Rather than try to teach you everything I know about typography, I’ve put together a font style guide with 10 of my favorite fonts in categories like elegant, quirky, and sports. All fonts can be found online at one of my 3 favorite font websites:, FontSquirrel, or Google Fonts. Sign up to receive the cheat sheet here!