Typography & Truth, a conversation with Errol Morris

Design East Media
(James Way)

(James Way)

Errol Morris took the podium at the Grolier Club, the venerated New York City typography and tome institution, to talk about his 2012 experiment to uncover the influence of a typeface. His experiment ran in the New York Times’ Opinionator column and asked readers whether they were optimists or pessimists, based on the text. However, one small, but key, paragraph was rendered in one of six fonts on different computers (only one of the 45,000 respondents wrote Morris having noticed the difference), and this evaluated whether people believed the passage to be true.

(James Way)

(James Way)

“It started off as a kind of  ‘what if’ joke. I wondered if a typeface could influence our belief in truth or false,” revealed Morris. One font, though close to the others in the poll, proved a “statistically meaningful” revelation in terms of truthfulness and believability. Baskerville was the slight outlier, which Morris revealed in a two-part follow up that has been collected in the 44th of the Pentagram Papers series. And, Michael Bierut was on hand to moderate.

The typefaces, three serif and three sans serif, were chosen for their familiarity in academic publishing and computer operating systems. Comic Sans was selected because “it provokes a lot of people, even me,” declared Morris who is a self-confessed pessimist. “I may never have experienced it [optimism] but it fascinates me that so many are optimists despite the insurmountable evidence against it. Formerly a devotee of Bembo typefaces, Morris now writes in Baskerville.

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