The Hidden Meaning of Fonts

How to Use Typeface Psychology to Drive Results

As a small business owner or entrepreneur, you already know the old maxim that "words matter." Words matter in your messaging, your product and service descriptions, your marketing funnels, and anywhere else that you put the proverbial pen to paper.

But it's not just the words themselves that matter. How your words appear visually — the specific typefaces and fonts you use on your website and in your logo design — matters too. When it comes to establishing your brand, upgrading your brand recall and loyalty, and improving all aspects of your customer acquisition, engagement and retention, you must consider the psychology, influence and interpreted meanings behind your fonts. 

The Hidden Message of the Brand

In this comprehensive guide to the role that typefaces and fonts play in your marketing and branding, we'll explore:

  • The difference between typefaces and fonts (it's easy to get these two terms confused!)
  • The psychological impact of your typefaces and fonts
  • The four most popular typeface styles (and what they mean to your customers)
  • The differences between different font sizes, styles, etc.
  • The strategic best practices for using typefaces and fonts in your branding, your website, your marketing communications and more.

Terminology 101: The Difference Between Typefaces and Fonts

Throughout this guide, we'll use the terms "typefaces" and "fonts" frequently. While many people treat these terms as interchangeable, there is a subtle yet important difference:

  • A typeface is a collection of glyphs (i.e., the letters, numbers, symbols and punctuation) that all share a single design. 
  • A font is a set of glyphs in a typeface.

For example, Helvetica or Times New Roman are typefaces. But 14-point Times New Roman and 18-point Times New Roman are fonts of the same typeface.

Why Typefaces and Fonts Matter: The Psychology and Meaning Behind Your Typeface Choices

According to a study published in the Behaviour & Information Technology research journal, it takes someone only 50 milliseconds to make a first impression about your brand and your website. And your typefaces and fonts are a key element in your branding. 

Every typeface you choose has a personality and conveys some sort of emotion, which in turn causes the customer to make assumptions about your brand. According to Dr. Beth Kock, an expert on the psychological implications of typography, this process happens rapidly within someone's subconscious: 

  • You see a font embedded in a logo, printed on a business card, or splashed across a website.
  • Your brain picks up on the font's various components, including aspects like its size, its spacing, its weight, etc.
  • Your subconscious then associates those components with real-world aspects.

That latter point is fundamental. Your readers will attach your typeface's characteristics with objects or actions around them, then associate those connections back to your brand or message. 

The Hidden Meaning of Fonts

For example, a tall, thin font is perceived to have light, thin characteristics. That's why you'll often see this kind of typeface used in airplane brands and weight loss marketing. 

A typeface design that has a forward slant, or even choosing an italicized font, can imply forward-moving momentum or speed. You might see these design choices in a taxi company or a courier service.

And informal, quirky typefaces often have a child-like look to them, so you might see them in brands for preschools, children products, etc.

Four Typeface Styles (And What They Mean to Your Audience)

Now that you understand the basic psychological principles of your typeface choices, let's look at four common typeface styles and what hidden meanings they add to your branding.

1. Serif Typefaces

Popular Examples: Times New Roman, Caslon, Garamond, Ogg, Freight Text

Example 1: Silk Serif and Playfair Display Font

Serifs are the little lines or design marks at the end points of different letters and numbers. Serif typefaces are subconsciously associated with tradition, trustworthiness, respect and luxury, which is why you'll see them used in publishing (e.g., Time magazine, The New York Times, etc.) and luxury branding (e.g. Rolex, Burberry, etc.).

2. Sans Serif Typefaces

Popular Examples: Futura, Apercu, Avenir, Brandon Grotesque, Helvetica

Example 2: Lato and Montserrat FontExample 1: Optima and Marcellus Font

As their name suggests, sans serif typefaces do away with the serif. The result is a clean, modern-looking typeface that often conveys accessibility and progress. You'll see sans serif fonts in most web environments, like the branding for tech giants Microsoft and Google.

3. Slab Serif Typefaces

Popular Examples: Rockwell, Arvo, Roboto Slab

Example 2: Abril Fatface and Acherus Mulitant Font

Slab serif typefaces have a bigger weight and size, giving them a strong, solid look. They're often used to demonstrate reliability, heaviness or strength. You'll see them in fitness and gym branding and automobile branding. 

4. Script Typefaces (And Their Coursin, Handwritten Typefaces)

Popular Examples: Lobster, Lucida, Pacifico

Example 1: Georgia Script and Silccia Script
Example 2: Notera and Hijrnotes
Example 3: Blackstone and Tropical Summer Brush

Script typefaces mimic handwritten script. Thus, they come across as feminine, creative, approachable/friendly and elegant. Brands that want to come across as such include Cadillac, Instagram and Cadbury.

A subset of script typefaces are handwritten typefaces like Knewave, Patrick Hand and Amatic SC. They take script typefaces and add more of an emphasis on quirky, creative design elements that make the typeface feel more organic and natural. Prominent examples include the logos for Kellog's cereal and Disney.

Fonts: Adding Flourish to Your Chosen Typeface

Once you've selected a typeface, choosing your font styles adds an additional layer of subconscious messaging to your branding and messaging. 

There are dozens of options to play with. In general, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Light versus bold fonts: Light fonts come across as more feminine or gentle, while bold fonts swing the opposite direction and trigger emotions of masculinity and strength.
  • Slanted versus straight fonts: Going with a straight option conveys stability and reliability, while slanted fonts trigger ideas of movement, progress or change.
  • Condensed versus extended fonts: The more condensed and tight the spacing around your letters, the more precise your branding appears. The more spacious your font, the more relaxed or open your branding.

Putting It Into Action: Best Practices and Strategies for Effectively Using the Psychology of Typefaces

the difference between fonts

Every brand is different, and the best brands sometimes break the "rules" in order to stand out in a crowded marketplace. 

That being said, there are some general best practices and principles to keep in mind. For many business owners and entrepreneurs, it comes down to your brand core, and the context of the typeface (i.e., where you're using a specific typeface or font style).

1. What's Your Brand Core?

Your typeface and font choices must appeal to your target audience. For instance, if you're a law firm, a whimsical or informal typeface would not be in alignment with the brand values your core clientele likely expects. 

Consider the emotions and associations you want your audience to have when they see your logo, your marketing and your publications, and ensure your typeface is supporting your goals. 

Need assistance identifying your brand's core values? The branding experts at Marketing Your Brand can help you build a brand portfolio that engages your audience and guides your branding choices, including your typefaces! Contact us today to learn more.

2. Where is Your Message Appearing?

Serif fonts are more readable in print. If you choose to go with a sans serif typeface in print, you may need to adjust your size or weight to ensure readability (especially if your core audience is older).

Sans serif typefaces are more readable online.

You'll also want to consider how a certain typeface will appear in different formats and mediums. For example, a thin, scripted logo may look elegant on a big billboard, but it may be almost unreadable in the corner of your business card. 

3. What Are the Trends in the Marketplace?

Do a quick competitive analysis. What are your competitors going with in terms of typefaces and fonts in their logos, their websites, and their printed assets? This can give you a quick indication of what your audience expects. Remember, the psychological implications of fonts is all about the real-world associations that your readers create. 

4. Keep It Simple and Timeless

Flip through an old magazine from the early 2000s, or check out a mom-and-pop shop that hasn't updated its in-store brand assets since it opened in the '90s, and notice how your brain immediately creates assumptions about the brand's values, relevance, etc. 

Unless your brand values dictate going with something very trendy or quirky, you're likely best served going with a typeface and font that appears clean and timeless. Timeless doesn't have to mean old fashioned!

Likewise, use varying fonts to accentuate or highlight key phrases, callouts, and other branding elements. But don't overdo it: Too much variation within a logo, brochure or website, and it will appear chaotic or unprofessional to your reader.

5. Give it a Practice Go

There are many online tools, such as Stencil and Canva, that let you play with various typefaces and fonts. Do a mockup of your brand, play around with different styles, and take notes of what jumps out at you. You can even do a dry run and show your mockups to business advisors or sample clientele to get real-world feedback. Or let the professionals capture your brand vision, Marketing Your Brand offers a range of logo design and brand design packages that will suit your scope and budget here. 

Ready to Harness the Psychological Power of Typefaces and Fonts?

Font psychology drives real marketing and sales results. The most successful brands sell not only through their direct marketing claims, but also by connecting with their audience psychologically and triggering emotional cues that lead to conversions.

Take a look at our logo design services here or Contact Marketing Your Brand today for an in-depth analysis of your brand, and what typefaces and fonts can support your marketing goals.

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