A Deep Dive into the Psychology of Text
Knowledge Share | Industry Savvy

A Deep Dive into the Psychology of Text

on / by Robyn Collinge

The written word. The primary source through which we share our knowledge. From ancient religious texts and history books, to learning of our friend’s relationship status on Facebook. It’s the marvelous medium that allows us to express emotions, share thoughts, and tell stories. It has done for centuries.

But is the pen still mightier than the sword?

Unfortunately text, of course, has its pitfalls. It is a static medium. We often forget that – for the majority of us English speakers – all we read, all that we’ve ever read, is merely a different arrangement of a specific 26 characters with some punctuation thrown in and syntactic rules applied.

In today’s culture, it seems images and video are able to capture and represent a scene far more succinctly than words could ever hope to. Just look at the ever growing popularity of photo and video sharing platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which have become a much more practical way to share elements of our everyday life. A rhetoric only emphasized by the significant decline in Twitter interactions, a textually-predominant experience.

instagram photography blogging workshop concept. hand holding phone taking photo of stylish winter flat lay coffee cookies and spices on wooden rustic background. cozy mood autumn

However, image and video can never truly replace text – just ask any reader for their thoughts on a film adaptation. The written word will always be required to convey information, just as I am doing now.

Text is everywhere and it’s an essential component for shaping a user experience. We want to keep our readers gripped, and make their experience as hassle free as possible. We also want to convey the emotional elements that text may lack in comparison to image or video.

To remedy this, it is possible to employ certain techniques to ease your reader’s experience. Be it a blurb on a book, product information on a web page, a blog, or a full-length novel. We want to ensure readers take notice, read the important information, and stay gripped.

1. Choose the right font

Personality

The pseudo-scientific practice of Graphology has been around for over 200 years. Practitioners attempt to interpret people’s handwriting to judge personality, and even detect neurological issues. However, since the demise of personal handwriting, experts have transferred to typefaces to search for clues to our identities – examining the fonts we use in emails or personal letters to deduce personality.

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In 2001, Lexmark commissioned Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman to study how a typeface influences what a reader thinks of the author. Within this article – ‘The Psychology of Fonts’ – Sigman suggested that certain fonts could be matched to specific personality traits.

Specific fonts apply to certain situations. For example, when applying for a job we may use Times for a traditional company, or Verdana for somewhere more contemporary. This useful infographic offers a list of fonts, the impression they give to your reader, and the situation in which they are most appropriate.

Size Matters

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The size of the font is also significant. It is obvious, but we use larger fonts for important, eye-catching elements of our text such as titles. With a smaller size for the general body in order to conserve space. This is a tradition carried over from historic print publishing.

Through differentiating font sizes we can draw attention to the parts of the text that are most important for us to convey to our reader. Word maps make use of this, showing commonly used words in a larger size to convey their prominence in the analyzed text.

2. Color it right

Color is arguably the most influential psychological tool a web designer has at their disposal. A splash of the relevant spectrum of light can instantly alert a visitor to what the situation entails.

Emphasis

Color’s main function within text is to highlight and create emphasis for the reader, helping the eyes to distinguish differing elements and draw attention. Historically, writers had two tools at their disposal: italics and boldness. Color was at a premium before the digital age, reserved for the cover or maybe for accompanying pictures if you were lucky. 

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On the web, however, color is not an issue. We can go crazy if we like, however it’s not advisable. The first rule of color is to ensure readability doesn’t suffer. That’s why the classic black and white combination is predominantly used. Around a standard black and white body, we can add all manner of color to divert and manipulate a reader’s attention. Flat Design principles make great use of this, using color to differentiate elements.

Capturing Attention

As you may see on this page, elements separate to this article have been colored separately. This not only highlights any calls-to-action but it draws your attention to the black and white simplicity this body of text. 

This also works brilliantly for product descriptions, where important words can be highlighted to the user, forcing them to divert attention. Visitors usually won’t read every detail on a page, so forcing them see the important parts is essential to capture their attention and draw them in.

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Subconscious Thoughts

Color also carries great cultural associations. In the Western world, we commonly associate green with success and red with failure. Good and bad. Go and stop. These offer subconscious reactions to colors which can help lend added meaning to text. Adding a dash of red to a failure state helps enforce the situation to the reader, as adding some green to a successful transaction tells your reader that all is good.

Readability

Aside from emphasis, color can be used in other great ways to help out the reader and writer. BeeLine Reader is an ingenious solution which claims to increase reading speed up by 30%.

How?

Key to typography are two things: legibility – how distinguishable letters, words and phrases are and and readability – how easy it is for the brain to convert these into a coherent message. As our eyes scan across the page, it is possible for them to get lost on their journey. Ever read the same line twice? We train our eyes to get used to soaking lines and lines of text, yet this is still taxing and at times our eyes can get tired.

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BeeLine adds a color gradient to the text, making the transition from one line to the next easier on the eye: helping the eye to follow a set path and increasing reading speed as a result. 

3. Get smart with formatting

Readability

Finally, the format of your text has a major influence on its readability. Think of newspapers, with their multiple narrow columns. This is the result of years of study and refinement. In the words of Bob Bailey, Ph.D. (UI Design Newsletter – November 2002):

“One of the best studies was done by Tinker and Paterson in 1929. Using 10-point black type on white paper, they found that line lengths between 3 inches and 3.5 inches (75 to 90 mm) yielded the fastest reading performance.”

On the web, due to the reader’s further distance from the screen, line lengths needn’t be quite so compact, with 4-5 inches considered the optimal length. Still, it is important to ensure your reader’s eyes aren’t scanning too much.

Whitespace

The use of whitespace on the web is of great importance in improving the comprehension of a piece of text. Let your content breathe; be mindful about spaces between lines and letters and you’ll make things easier for your reader to digest.

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Airows not only uses whitespace to separate each feature, but the negative space in the images they choose means text can be laid on top without overpopulating the page. The amount of text is also minimal and using a high-contrast color like white ensures each title clearly stands out.

Takeaways

And there we have it, a deep dive into the psychology of text and how you can best use it to influence the UX of your online platforms.

To summarize, try to keep the following in mind:

  • Ensure your text is relevant to the situation it is being presented in
  • Size matters – logical sizing places emphasis where it’s needed
  • Use a font that represents the conversation you want to have
  • Color is essential in relaying subconscious messages to your reader
  • Color can also be used to draw attention specific pieces of text
  • Text is useless unless it is readable – help your reader out with logical formatting


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Article by

Robyn Collinge

As Usabilla's Copywriter, Robyn brings nice words together - like peanut butter, napping, and Sunday brunch.

Share your thoughts

  • David

    Do you have a color chart or graphic for other countries? I would think purple and red have different meanings in Asian countries.

    • Oliver McGough

      Hey David. I’m afraid I don’t, shouldn’t be too difficult to find one with a bit of Googling :) Completely neglected to add something about cultural differences, thanks for picking up on this! (I just sneakily added a disclaimer…)

  • Hi David,

    here you can see the colors in cultures http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/colours-in-cultures/

    • Hi Tristano, Thanks for sharing. This is indeed a very useful resource when designing for different cultures.

  • paulhasselsmonning

    Valuable recommendations Robyn that many an organization especially in B2B can still benefit from!

    The best way to gauge whether your texts are striking the right chord is to measure their effect. This can be done in a variety of ways: by asking the customer their opinion using Usabilla, by A/B testing of 2 different titels for eg an email newsletter and by measuring your content’s effect in terms of engagement, traffic and even leads and sales using marketing automation.

    Neuromarketing tests may sound expensive and complex yet are becoming more and more accessible. With specialist partners like NeuroSpire (USA) or Braynz (NL) companies can have their content tested via eg fMRI, eye tracking or eeg to gauge what impact in terms of emotion and attention your verbiage has.

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