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Baskerville; the font, the man

If you have ever wondered what font you should be using for your essays, maybe this post will give you a hint!

[I]s there a typeface that promotes, engenders a belief that a sentence is true? Or at least nudges us in that direction? […] indeed there is.
It is Baskerville.1

TL;DR → Use the Baskerville font for essays!

There is (somewhat tenuous!) evidence that suggests that we should be careful with our choice of fonts when preparing a text for other to read; instructions, announcements, posters, books…. essays! The reason being that the choices we make may affect the way our readers perceive and feel about what we have written. This can be a big deal if, for example, someone is grading your work! So, what is the best’2 font for college essays?

The origin of this discussion is a blog post from 2006 written by then college student Phil Renaud; he reviewed the grades his papers had received over his time in college and came to the conclusion that the font he’d chosen to use had an effect on the grades he’d received.

Renaud’s choice of font and grades
Font No. of essays Average Grade
Times New Roman 11 A-
Trebuchet MS 18 B-
Georgia 23 A

The main distinction he sees is between Serif’ fonts, like Baskerville and Georgia (see below), and Sans Serif’ fonts like Arial, Helvetica and Trebuchet.Renaud concludes:

I want to say that serifs appeal to academics more than sans-serifs do […] the style used in an essay certainly seems to influence grading tendencies, even if that is at an unconscious level. I think that it’s possible that a person sees a Serif font and thinks proper, academic”, and sees a Sans font and thinks focus is on the style, not the substance; must lack integrity”. Maybe.

It has long been understood that fonts are not just a means for carrying a text but have connotations of their own; in some places a font with a modern’ feel (whatever that is!) seems appropriate, in other places we want a more classical’ feel. While this might seem a matter of style’ rather than anything more concrete, a study inspired by Renaud’s blog article suggests that there may be a link between the font in which a piece of information is presented and our willingness to trust the source.

This leads us to the New York Times writer, Errol Morris; on 9 July 2012 Morris wrote a piece entitled Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist? which considered the possibility/probability of Earth being hit by a large asteroid, and finished off with a short questionnaire for readers. This asked them to assess whether they believed the following claim, made by scientist David Deutsch:

If a one kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so.

Readers were asked to choose whether they believed the statement or not, then to say how confident they were in their judgment. However, the article (published online) was designed to randomly select one of several fonts3 for the Deutsch quote. And the aim of the questions was actually to investigate whether there was a relationship between the font and how believable readers felt the quote to be.

You can read about the details of the scoring and mathematical analysis in the original article where Morris came clean and explained the actual purpose of the quiz. But, the upshot is that when the Deutsch statement was printed in Baskerville, people tended to agree more and disagree less; Baskerville has both the highest rate of agreement and the lowest rate of disagreement’(ibid.)

Morris had help from David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, who assisted with the design of the Optimist/Pessimist’ article and quiz, and helped assess the responses. Dunning’s response to the findings was as follows:

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. (original emphasis)
Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority.

So, there you go; Baskerville says authority’, it says you can trust me, I know what I’m saying’. Who knows? Maybe over the course of a four-year degree it might just make a difference to that final GPA 😉

The fonts used by the NYT article

This is what those fonts look like:

Baskerville
An empty stomach knows no morality.

Georgia
An empty stomach knows no morality.

Computer Modern
An empty stomach knows no morality.

Trebuchet MS
An empty stomach knows no morality.

Comic Sans
An empty stomach knows no morality.

Helvetica
An empty stomach knows no morality.

And this is what a paragraph (from Borges’ The Disk) set in Baskerville looks like:

I do not worship Odin,’ I said. I worship Christ.’ He went on as if he had not heard me. I travel the paths of exile, but I am still king, for I have the disk. Do you want to see it?’ He opened the palm of his bony hand. There was nothing in it. Only then did I recall that he had always kept the hand closed.

Compared to Times New Roman, the standard’ book font, which seems to have become almost a global default, you can see that although it is similar in many ways it is somewhat lighter:

I do not worship Odin,’ I said. I worship Christ.’ He went on as if he had not heard me. I travel the paths of exile, but I am still king, for I have the disk. Do you want to see it?’ He opened the palm of his bony hand. There was nothing in it. Only then did I recall that he had always kept the hand closed.

Baskerville, the king of fonts’, dates from the middle of the 18th century and is named after its creator, a brilliant, yet somewhat eccentric, Birmingham artist/designer/businessman called John Baskerville.

John Baskerville (1706-1775)

John Baskerville - from Talbot Baines Reed (p.268), original in Hansard’s ‘Typographia’John Baskerville - from Talbot Baines Reed (p.268), original in Hansard’s ‘Typographia’

Baskerville was born in 1706 in Birmingham, more or less in the centre of the UK and then a town of 30,000 or so people; he started work as a servant in the house of a local clergyman, who discovered he had a talent for writing and set him to teach local children how to write. This led him to a post as writing-master at King Edward’s School’(Benton 1914, 2).

His first business venture was in japanned ware’ (lacquered goods) and by 1749 he carried on a great trade in the japan art, making such useful things as candlesticks, stands, salvers, waiters, bread-trays, tea-boards, etc., which were elegantly designed and highly finished.’(Benton 1914, 3). His success in business allowed him to build a large house at Easy Hill4, outside the centre of Birmingham.

Baskerville became interested in printing around 1750; supported by his lucrative japanning business he invested in the development of a press, he made his own moulds, chases, ink, presses, and, indeed, almost the entire apparatus of the art’(Baines Reed 1887, 269)

Baskerville was fairly unconventional in his personal life: in 1750 or so he was joined at Easy Hill by a Mrs Sarah Eaves (and her children), who had made an unfortunate marriage’ to one Robert Eaves, and to whom she was still legally married. Nevertheless, she was considered Mrs Baskerville’, and in June 1764, on the death of Robert, they were married. On Baskerville’s death in 1775, Sarah inherited his printing press and type and ran the business until 1779, when she sold everything to Pierre Beaumarchais, the French polymath’(Archer-Parré 2022, 279), who intended to use it to reprint the works of Voltaire5, with whom Baskerville had also corresponded (Benton 1914, 18).

Famed type designer, Zuzana Licko, named her 1996 reworking of the Baskerville font Mrs Eaves in her memory, below is a sample.

Mrs Eaves
An empty stomach knows no morality.

The first work to come from the Baskerville press was an edition of Virgils poetry, you can see some sample pages here. Throughout his career as a printer he produced around 60 books, mostly Latin classics but also a Bible and the Book of Common Prayer’; these latter two are perhaps surprising given his attitude to religion — unusually for the time he may have been an atheist, at very least he was extremely disdainful of organised religion. He was buried in the grounds of his Easy Hill house, in a lead coffin, under a specially design conical building’(Archer-Parré 2022, 284); his epitaph made clear his views and read:

Stranger –
Beneath this Cone in Unconsecrated Ground
A Friend to the Liberties of mankind Directed his Body to be Inhum’d
May the Example Contribute to Emancipate thy Mind
From the Idle Fears of Superstition
And the Wicked arts of Priesthood.

Benton’s essay on Baskerville finishes with this assessment:

Why do we collect [Baskerville’s] imprints, and why do we talk about him? I think it is because he had the true artistic vision and courage. He conceived the idea of a perfect book, such as had not been printed in England. He did not grow into it. He did not make one book, and then a better one, and then a better one, until at last he achieved the beautiful book. He conceived the book as an artist conceives a statue before he strikes a blow with his chisel into the marble. It was wonderful that he should have done so. (Benton 1914, 63)

And, if we want to partake in a little portion of that perfection we can always use the font he designed.

Sources

NYT Article, Errol Morris, 2012: Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?’
https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/are-you-an-optimist-or-a-pessimist/

NYT Article, Morris follow-up explaining the quiz results: Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth (Part 1)’
https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/08/hear-all-ye-people-hearken-o-earth/

eBook of John Baskerville, type-founder and printer, 1706-1775’ by Josiah H. Benton, 1914
https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/71072/pg71072-images.html

eBook of A History of the Old English Letter Foundries’ by Talbot Baines Reed, 1887
https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/54365/pg54365-images.html

Study of Baskervilles’ death and grave  Inhuming and Exhuming: John Baskerville’s Death, Burial and Post-Mortem Life’ by Caroline Archer-Parré
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0047729X.2022.2126238

Phil Renaud (2006), The Secret Lives of Fonts’
https://riotindustries.com/words/the-secret-lives-of-fonts/

References

Archer-Parré, Caroline. 2022. Inhuming and Exhuming: John Baskerville’s Death, Burial and Post-Mortem Life.” Midland History 47 (3): 274–91.
Baines Reed, Talbot. 1887. A History of the Old English Letter Foundries. London: Elliot Stock.
Benton, Josiah Henry. 1914. John Baskerville, Type-Founder and Printer, 1706-1775. Boston MA: The Merrymount Press.

  1. https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/08/hear-all-ye-people-hearken-o-earth/↩︎

  2. Obviously, if your prof only accepts essays written in, for example, Comic Sans, then ignore what is best’ and do what you need to 😉↩︎

  3. Baskerville, Computer Modern, Comic Sans, Trebuchet, Helvetica and Georgia↩︎

  4. Easy Hill: https://billdargue.jimdofree.com/placenames-gazetteer-a-to-y/places-e/easy-hill/↩︎

  5. Wikipedia. Beaumarchais, The Voltaire Revival’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Beaumarchais#The_Voltaire_revival↩︎

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