Cool or Effective? The Font Difference

Font 650I recently had the honor of judging marketing materials for an international aging association that sponsored the competition for ageless/positive aging approaches. Generally speaking, I could not have been more disappointed with the entries targeting middle aged and older adults.

From a simple design standpoint, there were many exceptional examples of positive aging graphics, empowering programming and sound branding and positioning. So, isn’t that what advertising is you ask?

The answer lies in the mechanics—many used enamel paper stock which increases glare, some contained font sizes less than 12 point, many over-used stereotypical references such as senior and retirement. Some had type laid over photos. Almost all submissions were printed using sans serif fontsblunt-ended fonts like the ones you are seeing here without the little ends of strokes on the characters.

Currently, graphic design, journalism and marketing courses are teaching the same principles that have been taught for three decades when adults between age 18 and 39 dominated the consumer market. Clearly, the agencies that created these materials are a product of the Internet, tablets, smartphones, Kindles, Facebook, etc. Their brains can quickly read and process information presented using sans serif fonts such as Arial, Calibri or Tahoma. That is not, however, true of mature adults who grew up reading newspapers, magazines and books printed with serif fonts.

In his 1986 book, Cashvertising, Drew Eric Whitman cited a 1986 study of fonts used in print materials and found only 12 percent of participants effectively comprehended a paragraph set in sans-serif type versus 67% who were given a version set in serif typeface. When testing two serifs (Garamond and Times New Roman) and one sans serif, Helvetica, serif fonts trumped again. In this study, 66% comprehended Garrmond (the font used in this article), 31.5% comprehended Times New Roman compared to only 12.5% for Helvetica.

I have spent the past 35 years studying effective strategies for reaching older markets, conducted hundreds of seminars and written communications standards and print guideline for effective communications for a variety of organizations. When shared, graphic designers and young creative ignore the research and defend their choice of font with statements like "other research has found the difference insignificant." Or worse, they say, “I am the trained/educated/experienced marketing professional, and you should listen to me.”

They get away with it because most organizations have not been exposed to or taken the time to discover what should be common knowledge for anyone serving older adults. If an agency brings a mock-up with sans serif type, you should conclude that they do not know enough about Baby Boomers and older consumers to be effective and find a new agency.

The most common defense is that, “If it is so bad, why is sans serif the dominant font online?” Again, they’re demonstrating a lack of knowledge. The sans serif font was adopted for computer because computers lacked sufficient DPI (the density of illuminated points on a computer screen) to create serifs and the early dot matrix printers could not print them. Thanks to innovations introduced to meet the demands of a font-obsessed Steve Jobs at Apple, both computing and printing were revolutionized.

We all need to realize that it is the brain that both decides what to read and what to ignore, and that most of that information processing occurs at a preconscious level. In short, what the reader's mind is used to seeing and has accepted in a lifetime, explains why older minds prefer serif fonts such as Times New Roman, Garamond or Georgia.

Today's youth read using tablets not books. They get their news from the web, not newspapers. And many have difficulty creating a coherent sentence—no doubt partially due to the influence of texts and tweets. Twenty or thirty years from now, a cognitive shift may lead to a preference to sans serif fonts, but that shift has not occurred yet—not, at least, for today's older market.