Google Web Fonts makes it easy to customize the typeface you use in your online documents. You just search or browse through Google’s offering of fonts (there are hundreds!), then select and add them to a collection. You place some code provided by Google in the head of your web page HTML, and presto: you (and your readers) now have shared access to fonts that were heretofore unavailable. It’s an easy and effective way to control the typefaces displayed on your online content. What’s not easy is determining whether this is a good thing for online learning.
Why? Because research has shown that font selection has a demonstrable and statistically significant effect on learning and the perceived truthfulness of a text. Some of the findings are surprising.
One of the normally unquestioned principles of usability in web design is to facilitate ease of reading, and font selection is a key factor in the achievement of that end. Some fonts like Verdana and Georgia were designed for the web and are easier to read than others, making reading faster and less fatiguing. This facilitates the scanning for information that typifies much online activity.
There are also affective or branding considerations. A serif font like Times might be selected for an article on Renaissance literature because of its associations with academia and the humanities, while a sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica might be chosen for a scientific journal. Choices like these influence how a message is perceived and evaluated, and for skilled designers they are intentional decisions.
Where things get more complicated is in online learning. While it’s generally accepted that ease of reading is a highly desirable goal in most web based applications, it turns out that this is not necessarily so for online learning, where the goal is to comprehend and retain knowledge. Research in 2010 by Princeton University psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer and reported in The Economist demonstrated that learning retention was improved by making text harder to read. In other words, choosing fonts that slow down a reader should aid in their retention of difficult material.
There’s also research on the effect of typefaces on perceived truthfulness or authority of information. Errol Morris reported in a two-part New York Times series on the results of a study designed to test whether certain typefaces influence the credulity of information. He argues that the form of writing can’t be separated from its content, and that the selection of a typeface has a direct impact on the believability of information. His study demonstrates that this effect exists and is statistically significant.
The upshot is that while web font services like Google Web Fonts (and Adobe Edge Web Fonts) provide an easy way to manipulate the typefaces used on web pages, this ability comes with an increased responsibility of designers to carefully consider the context of their use. If your goal is to make it easier for your students to remember difficult material, you should consider making the information harder to read. And if you want them to believe what you write, don’t use Comic Sans.