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Don't Judge a Book by Its... Font?

6/2/2008 --

Instructions printed in hard-to-read fonts cause readers to deem the corresponding activity more difficult than it actually is, say researchers at Ross.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Those of us who read the fine print before engaging in an activity might be at a disadvantage, according to new research by Ross marketing professor Norbert Schwarz (pictured at right) and doctoral psychology student Hyunjin Song.

Results of their recent study reveal that instructions printed in a hard-to-decipher font often give the impression that the accompanying task is difficult and will take a lot of time and skill, which may discourage people from participating in it.

"[Our] findings provide first evidence that people misread the ease of processing instructions as bearing on the ease of executing the described behavior," say the researchers.

Song (pictured at left) and Schwarz ran several studies to test their hypothesis. In all of the studies, participants were given instructions in various fonts of the same point size and asked to rate the difficulty for the corresponding activity. Across the board, the font deemed more difficult to read elicited a higher degree of difficulty rating for the related activity.

One of the studies involved instructions for an exercise routine printed in the Arial font for one group of participants and Brush Script MT 12, a slanted cursive-like font, for the other group.

"As expected, participants inferred that the exercise routine would flow more naturally and take less time when the font was easy to read," the researchers say. "As a result, they reported higher willingness to make the exercise part of their daily routine."

Song and Schwarz controlled for inconsistent memory and found that participants recalled details of the instructions equally well regardless of the font used.

"People are more likely to engage in a given behavior the less effort it requires," explain Schwarz and Song. Therefore, the path of least resistance, an easy-to-read font, seems to yield the most compliant direction-takers.

According to the researchers, a person's tendency to draw on metacognitive experiences—that is, the feelings of ease or difficulty that accompany the thought process—in making judgments should be useful for marketers and designers. With this research in mind, instructions can be designed and printed to increase the appeal of the described behavior and increase the likelihood that people will engage in it.

Song and Schwarz's research is slated to appear in the October 2008 issue of Psychological Science.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,