Fluency, fonts and union design

August 9, 2011

Have you heard of the concept of fluency?

Simply put (and for the purpose of this blog post), fluency is the “ease with which people process information”. Fluency affects a wide array of judgements people make about almost everything, and can influence our confidence in things, concepts, people or organisations.

It turns out that a lot of things can affect fluency – and the design choices we make, even for simple things like what fonts we choose can have significant impacts on a person’s ability to make a judgement about what they are viewing.

For unions – who have to compete each day for the attention of working people in a crowded space full of marketers, employers’ propaganda, magazines, TV, and more – understanding fluency is important.

Fluency, fonts and Unions

Examples from experiments by Oppenheimer and Frank, in which lowered fluency was due to a font manipulation.

A research paper by Daniel Oppenheimer and Michael Frank (from Princeton and MIT respectively), A rose in any other font would not smell as sweet: Effects of perceptual fluency on categorization, suggests that font choice can have a significant impact on the fluency of a piece of communication. They did several experiments, where one piece of writing was clear and crisp (the baseline) and another where the same text was presented in a difficult to read font or was blurry, obscured or poorly photocopied.

They found that the fluency of the two pieces was different, and the readers’ judgements of the two pieces in the experiment was affected – by something as superficial as the font! What’s more, when illegible font or blurry photocopying was pointed out to experiement subjects as reasons for decreased fluency, the subjects attempted to disregard fluency as an influencing factor in their understanding of the information.

Oppenheimer and Frank’s conclusions:

  1. Fluency can be increased by making the information easier to read (e.g. with a crisp font)
  2. Fluency can be decreased by making the information harder to read (e.g. with a blurry or illegible font)
  3. Audiences are not likely to consider influences on fluency (design, font choices, etc) as important – but they are!

This may seem common sense. Something that is hard to read is less easily processed.

But if you were to look at many of the posters, leaflets and websites of unions, you would see that this principle is regularly ignored.

I often see union flyers floating around that have little regard to the ease of reading. They jumble fonts in, or use inappropriate fonts (like grunge, smashed fonts, which are still popular in many unions), or crowd the message with lots of confusing images.

If unions are to make it easier for working people to understand our message – to make our communications more professionanal and effective – then we need to start to think more about fluency.

Simply put, good design matters – and an integral part of design is, believe it or not, font choices.

[box type=”info” border=”full”]Read Oppenheimer and Frank’s research paper here.[/box]

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