Whether we’re learning a new language, prepping for a job interview or simply trying to remember what we went into the kitchen for, many of us are keen to cultivate a better memory. And often strategies that add an element of effort or difficulty can help: drawing things rather than writing them down, for example, or generating questions about study material rather than simply reading it.
So in 2018, there was much fanfare when a team from Australia’s RMIT University developed a difficult-to-read font, Sans Forgetica, that they said could boost memory through such a “desirable difficulty”.
But new research in Memory from Andrea Taylor and colleagues from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, has put the font to the test — and found little evidence that it actually improves our memory.
Sans Forgetica was developed by a team of psychologists, marketers and graphic designers to create a feeling of “disfluency”. The font appears slanted and broken up, and, they claimed, this obstruction forces readers to process the information more deeply, promoting learning at the same time. Though previous research had suggested that disfluency can promote learning, there was mixed evidence on whether it was possible to create this effect with a font. The group of researchers behind Sans Forgetica believed that it was. Their results were never published, however, so the new team wanted to try and replicate those effects themselves.
An initial test established that Sans Forgetica is indeed more difficult to read than the standard font Arial; the team then conducted three experiments to establish whether the font had memory-boosting qualities too. First, 156 participants were shown a series of twenty word pairs, each of which was presented to them on a screen for 100 milliseconds. Each pair contained two associated words — chip and potato, for example — and half of the pairs were presented in Sans Forgetica and half in Arial.
After a short break of either ten, twenty or thirty seconds, participants took part in a memory test in which the first word of a pair was presented — their job was to type the second word. This test was presented in Times New Roman.
The results suggested that words written in Sans Forgetica were not more memorable: in fact, participants recalled fewer words that had been presented in the font than they did words presented in Arial. This was true regardless of how long the delay between tests was.
A second study looked at Sans Forgetica’s impact on longer, prose pieces. Three hundred participants read five educational prose passages (around 300 words long) containing some information in Sans Forgetica and some in Arial. After five minutes playing a card matching game, participants were tested on their memory of the information via multiple choice questions on the passages.
But despite claims that Sans Forgetica actively boosts memory, there was no difference in performance between the two fonts — participants answered 74% of questions about Sans Forgetica-printed information correctly vs 73% of Arial-printed information.
A final study looked at whether Sans Forgetica might have an effect on memory when people had to process information more deeply. The team asked 275 participants to read 500-word passages on different topics presented in a mix of Sans Forgetica and Arial. They were then asked to answer 12 questions designed to test their understanding of concepts contained in the passages, typing their understanding of a particular idea (e.g. “how does the process of gas exchange work?”) in an open-text box.
Again, participants’ memory for the conceptual information was no better when it had been shown in Sans Forgetica than when it had been shown in Arial: for information presented in Sans Forgetica, participants scored an average of 37.6%; in Arial, their score was 37.06%.
The results suggest that disfluent fonts — that is, fonts supposedly promoting desirable difficulties — aren’t actually that useful when it comes to retaining information. The team does note that individual differences, which they did not examine, could impact on the efficacy of Sans Forgetica or similar fonts. And if disfluent fonts promote deep learning, as their proponents claim, then an effect may also be more obvious after a longer break period — this could be a good focus of future research.
But if you’re looking for a magic bullet to boost your memory, Sans Forgetica probably isn’t it.