Use Serif Fonts to Make Your Writing More Persuasive

baskerville

I’ve long criticized sans-serif fonts in legal writing, and it turns out I’m right — at least according to a study conducted by filmmaker and NYT blogger Errol Morris. Helvetica (similar to Arial) and Comic Sans were the least believable fonts, while the serif fonts Baskerville and Computer Modern were significantly more persuasive. Says Cornell professor David Dunning,

Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

So, if you want to be persuasive, use Baskerville — or at least a nice serif font — in your legal writing. [via Daring Fireball]

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  • Butterick is, again, good on this. One point he makes that many system fonts, e.g., Georgia, have been optimized for screen legibility, not print. So while they look good on the monitor, they can be “clunky” on the printed page. The Baskerville system font is apparently better on the Mac than on the PC, and he gives some alternatives.

  • Aaron Williamson

    How do you explain Georgia’s placement at the bottom of the pile? It’s a solid serif font, by my lights classier than Computer Modern and less pretentious than Baskerville. It suggests that placement of the other serifs is not as significant as it might first seem.

    • Georgia is actually kind of cartoony, depending on the size.

  • ECS

    Thank God no one agreed with TNR. TNR is hard to read and I cannot for the life of me understand how it gained dominance in academia or anywhere else. I use a non MS font called Centurion which is (I now know!) quite similar to Baskerville and Georgia but it’s slightly smaler than Georgia and larger than Baskerville.

    Has anyone asked judges?

  • Leo

    Mrs Eaves has become our firm font. Looks great on screen, better in.print, and excellent at all sizes.

  • Butterick lists Mrs Eaves as a good alternative to Baskerville. As to TNR, he has a section of his book as to why it is “the font of least resistance.” I myself use Sabon for pleadings and memos (with Myriad, a sans serif, for headings) and Bembo Book for correspondence. One point to keep in mind, though—If you are going to be doing any collaboration, system fonts like TNR are safer to use. If you use a font that the other person doesn’t have, his computer will pick a font that it thinks is the closest. Which can lead to some funky re-formatting.

    • I like to collaborate using Google Docs. No problems with that format.

      A bonus about our use of Mrs Eaves — our firm is now instantly branded in Philadelphia. Judges see our pleadings and know that we filed it. So far, we’ve had considerable success, so I hope it’s a badge that judges and their clerks identify as indicative of quality legal work.

      With all the generic TNR/Arial/Calibri/Garamond out there, it’s a benefit to have instantly recognizable pleadings.

  • David R

    The version of MS Word that I am currently running has the font “Baskerville Old Face.” Is this the same font described in the study, or are they two distinct fonts? If they are distinct fonts, any thoughts on the persuasiveness of “Baskerville Old Face”?

  • Joshua Sachs

    I, too, am surprised to see Georgia in the bottom spot. It is a clear and open serif font, and I have sometimes used it on briefs because it seems to easy to read. Perhaps it strikes some eyes as insufficiently informal.

    • Georgia is only in the bottom spot on the chart I chose to post. There are quite a few other ways to look at the data, which are depicted at the source link. It’s more like the middle of the bottom, overall.

  • I am not surprised to see Georgia at the bottom. I have always thought it looked silly, girlish and fussy.

  • According to Butterick, Georgia “was designed primarily to work well on screen. The compromise is that it can be clunky on the printed page.” Also, as a system font, it is “overexposed.” He provides alternatives, e.g., Lyon, but they cost $. More important, though, is not to obsess over fonts. Fonts are “only one ingredient of typography.”

  • Kortney Nordrum

    Adoble Caslon Pro – all the way.

  • Adobe’s Caslon Pro is very nice. As is their Garamond, which I’ve used for correspondence.

  • Delighted to see that lawyers are standing up for their fonts. My personal all-time-life-long favorite letter is the Goudy “i” with the diamond dot.

  • Ronnie

    My firm uses Plantagenet Cherokee. It can look clunky at 12, so I use it at 11, which is still larger than TNR 12. It’s biggest drawback to me is that I can’t tell the difference between bold and normal font on the screen, though it’s noticeable on paper. It looks clean and professional. Loves it.

  • Thought I was on to something choosing Georgia over Times New Roman. This study is distressing, yet while you sing the praises of Baskerville, Computer Modern looks more elegant. At any rate, I value this discussion. Using the best, readable font is important, and for those of us who no longer can read without glasses, the font is that much more important.

    Thanks for sharing this information and suggested fonts.

    Melissa F. Brown (btw, I did not choose this font;)!!!)

  • Robb Shecter

    It’d be very interesting to see studies testing other attributes besides soundness of the argument presented. Ie., trustworthyness, honesty, reliability, etc.

    But with that caveat, I looked into some licensing and pricing options for using Baskerville on a website:
    http://www.g33klaw.com/2012/08/survey-web-fonts-circa-august-2012-how-to-try-out-baskerville-on-a-website/

    I then tested several of these for displaying statute text:
    http://www.weblaws.org/blog/2012/08/baskerville-vs-buenard-vs-caslon/
    http://www.weblaws.org/blog/2012/08/oldstyle-figures-for-better-statute-number-legibility/

  • I’ve lately been partial to Georgia. I may try out Mrs. Eaves. No one mentioned that she was Baskerville’s wife. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs_Eaves. I saw some negative comments that it has uneven spacing. I like to justify my paragraphs.

  • Carlos Izquierdo

    I always use Times new roman, it is clear, smart and, let’s say, transparent, I mean it calls not attention. What do yoy think of this font?

    • It’s a great way to say “I don’t care about this document.”

      From Typography for Lawyers:

      When Times New Roman appears in a book, document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, “I submitted to the font of least resistance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.