Ugly Fonts Help You Learn, Research Says

Having difficulty getting your message across? Try an uglier font.

Perhaps because people learn better when it's a struggle to do so, content written in difficult-to-read fonts is more readily remembered than content rendered in visually pleasing fonts, a group of researchers has found.

Their seemingly counter-intuitive findings could interest computer user-interface specialists wishing to maximize the impact of their designs.

In both lab experiments and in classroom trials, the researchers found that people learn new written information more easily if that information is presented in a font that is comparatively difficult to read, rather than with a font that is easier on the eyes.

Their results fall in line with other educational research that shows that the more challenging it is for people to learn new material, the more thoroughly they will ultimately understand that material.

"More cognitive engagement leads to deeper processing, which facilitates encoding and subsequently better retrieval," the researchers summarized in their paper, which was published in the January issue of the Cognition scientific journal.

A Princeton University student, Connor Diemand-Yauman, conducted the research, with the help of adviser Daniel Oppenheimer and Indiana University doctoral student Erikka Vaughan.

In a series of lab tests, volunteers were asked to memorize a set of physical characteristics attributed to hard-to-remember fictional names of an alien species. Some of the lists were rendered in either Comic Sans MS or Bodini MT, fonts considered difficult to read. The other lists were rendered in the more appealing Arial font.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Those who read the characteristics in the fonts that were difficult to read, or "disfluent" as the researchers called them, scored 14 percent better on the memory test than those who read the Arial font.

The researchers also found this improved performance holds in the classroom as well. Classroom presentations and worksheets for 222 Ohio high school students were rendered in three highly disfluent fonts -- Haettenschweiler, Monotype Corsiva and Comic Sans Italicized. The students with these materials learned the material more thoroughly than their peers who used the original material, the researchers reported.

Of course, such findings may not surprise individuals who render their written messages in all capital letters to get their ideas across, a practice loathed by many. On the other hand, keepers of the Ban Comic Sans blog site, which rails against the use of inappropriately used typography, might want to reconsider their stance.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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