Scientists Report Good Typography Improves Mood

I once found myself lost in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo. As any sensible person would do, I asked a local for directions. What I didn’t know then was that Egyptians are likely to give you an answer to your question even if they don’t know a correct answer. They feel obligated to help, even if they send you off in the wrong direction!


I eventually made it out of the bazaar but the experience lead me to learn about an interesting psychological concept referred to as the Hawthorne Effect. It’s a phenomenon whereby subjects alter their behavior in response to being studied. It’s not unlike asking a client what they think of your design comps, only to receive back a well-intentioned todo list of bad ideas: (1) make the logo bigger, (2) set the body type in Hobo, (3) the design needs more “wow factor” (I gagged a little typing that just now).

Many non-designers view design as purely aesthetic and totally based on personal preference or taste. As half-baked a view as that is, it’s up to us as professionals to steer client collaborations by managing the Hawthorne Effect and help lead the project to an objective end.

Kevin Larson (Microsoft) and Rosalind Picard (MIT) released a fascinating study in 2006 on the mood altering effects of typography, titled The Aesthetics of Reading. It sidesteps the Hawthorne Effect while dealing with a topic that is largely subjective in nature.

From the Abstract:

In this paper we demonstrate a new methodology that can be used to measure aesthetic differences by examining the cognitive effects produced by elevated mood. Specifically in this paper we examine the benefits of good typography and find that good typography induces a good mood. When participants were asked to read text with either good or poor typography in two studies, the participants who received the good typography performed better on relative subjective duration and on certain cognitive tasks.

The Study: The Aesthetics of Reading

via Desmond Wong

Image: A Cairo Bazaar by John Frederick Lewis, 1875

The type over the image is set in AW Conqueror by Jean Francois Porchez.

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