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Source: The subliminal power of fonts - FT.com

“The only font,” I remember a colleague saying to me once with an orotund flourish, “is Garamond. Don’t you think?”

This would have been bad enough, but he added into that a preposterously Frenchified roll of the “r” and placed the stress on the last syllable, so it came out something like: “Garrrrrra-MONG!” Zadie Smith would not pronounce it like that, but I know the author agrees with him.

Fonts, or “founts” in the old-fashioned spelling, elicit some strong feelings in people who feel strongly about them.

There are a few: a campaign to wipe Comic Sans off the face of the earth made the front page of the Wall Street Journal; a full length film was made about Helvetica. But they also elicit weak feelings in people who would not think of themselves as having any views about typefaces at all.

The effects may be subliminal, but they are there. Think of a typeface like the lighting design in the theatre, or the soundtrack in a movie. Not usually something the audience will notice, but it will shape their experience.

In his engaging book Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield argues that Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was materially helped by setting its campaign posters in Gotham: “There are some types that read as if everything written in them is honest, or at least fair.”

Designers of newspapers — such as this one, for which the admirable face Financier was purpose-designed last year — take a great deal of care over fonts.

So should anyone wishing to persuade. Your words are important and the typeface is their delivery mechanism.

We live, as we are often reminded, in an attention economy. You need to hold those eyes, so in most contexts you will want something fresh and readable without being lightweight, something businesslike without being forbidding.

Certain fonts or styles of font send subtle branding signals as well: something italic and sans serif might be seen to suggest modernity; something with a more trad roman face probably looks more grounded.

The flat-white-sipping adman with the East London Imagineering Agency might go for Eurostile or Courier; the long-established reinsurance firm would probably think twice. And what old-school heavy metal band would be without its Gothic black letter logo?

Bloomberg recently hit on the idea of consulting three “typography wonks” to ask about the best typeface to use on a CV. For what it is worth, the elegant but ubiquitous Helvetica came out on top. After that they seemed to differ.

One deplored Times New Roman: “It’s like putting on sweatpants.” Another execrated Courier: “You don’t have a typewriter, so don’t try to pretend that you have a typewriter.” Most, sensibly, warned against joined-up handwriting-style fonts such as Zapfino: better on a wedding invitation than a CV.

Writing in the Telegraph, Christopher Howse offered a note of caution: “How can you know whether the client has an irrational fear and loathing of Times New Roman or not? You might as well rely on feng shui.”

True, to a point. Your choice of font certainly will make an impression: even if there is no way of knowing exactly what it will be. But do try a few out before you press send. And take with a pinch of salt the advice that fortune favours the bold.

artofpersuasion@ft.com

The writer is the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama

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