Photo: The serif font Jubilat was used on signs for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid — though a new study suggests that sans serifs are generally seen as more liberal. Credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images.
Fonts can be very distinctive indeed. Even if robbed of their original context, it can be easy to identify the fonts used on the front of a Harry Potter book, adorning a Star Wars poster, or on the side of a Coca-Cola can, to name a few examples.
But particular fonts can also leave us with other impressions: the font used to brand a beloved book, for example, has different emotional connotations to the one you use to type emails. And according to new research in Communication Studies from Katherine Haenschen and Daniel Tamul at Virginia Tech, particular fonts may also carry some political connotations, too.
Research on political communication often focuses (quite understandably) on the content of campaign messages — what a candidate is saying and how they’re saying it. There have also been studies looking at the “personality traits” that various fonts can convey. Haenschen and Tamul looked at the intersection of these two topics: how fonts communicate either a liberal or conservative message, regardless of content.
The first study looked at typeface classification — how bold or italic a font is, for example. A total of 987 participants were shown a short, politically neutral piece of writing (“the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”) printed in various fonts: Times New Roman Regular, TNR Bold, TNR Italic, Gill Sans Regular, Gill Sans Bold and Gill Sans Italic. They were then asked to rate how liberal or conservative they felt the font was.
In a second study, a wider variety of typefaces was used. This time, 1,069 participants were either shown the phrase “a large fawn jumped quickly” or the name “Scott Williams” (chosen for its frequency as a name in the US). Three fonts were displayed: a serif font (Jubilat or Times New Roman), a sans serif font (Gills Sans or Century Gothic) and a display font (Sunrise, Birds of Paradise, or Cloister Black Light; these are fonts more commonly used for headings). Jubilat had been used widely in Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016; Century Gothic was picked for its similarity to the font used by Barack Obama in 2008. Again, participants had to rate how liberal or conservative each font was.
The results suggested that font styles are seen to have different ideological leanings. Both studies found that sans serifs were likely to be seen as more liberal than serifs, and this was the case both when participants were asked to read a politically neutral phrase and when they read a name. The results for display fonts were mixed: Sunrise was seen as the most liberal whilst Cloister Black Light was considered the most conservative, perhaps because of how modern or traditional they were deemed to be.
The political ideologies of participants themselves also had an impact: both participants with Republican and Democratic leanings tended to rate fonts in a similar way to others with the same ideology. Republicans were also more likely to rate fonts as more conservative overall than independent or Democratic participants. Unsurprisingly, participants also tended to like the fonts that were more aligned with their own ideology.
There are obvious, and immediate, practical implications here. Candidates are clearly trying to present themselves in a particular way; understanding not only what to say in campaign literature but in what font to do so may be a good trick for political teams. Choosing fonts for different purposes could also be a useful strategy for politicians: if one neighbourhood is more liberal than another, then fonts used on leaflets, signs or stickers could be tweaked.
It may also be a useful exercise for those of us not involved in politics to take a step back and look at how political parties or specific messages are being presented to us, and how branding is being used to convey these things. Subtextual details like font may not seem important beyond aesthetics. But look a bit closer, and we may find another message lurking underneath.