Know Your Typefaces! Semantic Differential Presentation of 40 Onscreen Typefaces

By A. D. Shaikh

Summary. This article presents results from a study investigating the personality of typefaces. Participants were asked to rate 40 typefaces (from serif, sans serif, display, and handwriting classes) using semantic differential scales. Responses are shown by typeface class and individual typeface using scaled scores. These results are helpful to practitioners when deciding which typeface to use for online text.

Introduction

While there has been quite a bit of research on the perception of printed type, there has not been a thorough investigation into the perception of onscreen type. This article presents the results from an investigation of the perceived personality of 40 onscreen typefaces (10 from serif, sans serif, display, and handwriting classes). The results presented here are from the responses of 379 participants who completed an online survey using semantic differentials. The semantic differential provides participants with a sample of nonsense text and a set of bipolar adjectives on a scale that has varying points of intensity. Each used a 7-point scale which allowed participants to judge both direction and intensity of their responses (Osgood & colleagues, 1957). Figure 1 shows a sample.

Figure1

Figure 1. Examples of text sample, semantic scales, and legibility question.

The responses reduced down to three factors to describe the typefaces: Evaluative, Potency, and Activity.

  • Potency reflects typefaces that are seen as having strength, power, or force.
  • Evaluative reflects typefaces that are viewed as having value, worth, and importance.
  • Activity reflects typefaces that are considered to be full of energy, movement, and action.

The factors were correlated; Potency and Activity were positively correlated, and Potency and Evaluative were negatively correlated. Table 1 shows the typefaces evaluated by class. Clicking on the typeface name, or class, displays the corresponding scale results. Figure 2 shows the results by typeface class. The scale results are helpful to practitioners as they decide which typeface to use for online content. It is important to present online text in a typeface that is consistent with the meaning of the text. For example, a designer would not want to present content that is “strong” in meaning in a Scripted typeface. Likewise, a Display typeface would not be a good choice for content that conveys “high value” or “beauty”.

Table 1. Typefaces evaluated using semantic differential scales.

Serif Sans Serif Display Script/Handwriting
Calisto Arial Agency Bradley Hand
Cambria Berlin Sans Bauhaus 93 Brush Script
Centaur Calibri Chiller French Script
Courier New Century Gothic Broadway Gigi
Georgia Consolas Curlz Informal Roman
High Tower Text Corbel Impact Kristen
Lucida Bright Lucida Console Juice Lucida Handwriting
Perpetua Incised 901 Lt BT Papyrus Viner Hand
Poor Richard Trebuchet Playbill Monotype Corsiva
Times New Roman Verdana Tempus Sans Vivaldi

Comparison of all classes

Figure 2. Results by typeface class.

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*Note: This article presents a small portion of findings from Dawn Shaikh’s dissertation investigating the perceptions of typeface personality. Please contact Dr. Shaikh for more information.

REFERENCES

Osgood, C. E., Suci, G. J., & Tannenbaum, P. H. (1957). The measurement of meaning. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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