I like fonts. I like letters that slide into each other and boldness that engulfs the page. I like the serif-y dignity of Time New Roman, Helvetica’s modesty, and even the buoyant loudness of Comic Sans. Words have plenty of personality, and fonts give them clothes to match. Typologist Boris Veystman compares a poorly chosen font to “a person coming to a fine dinner in sweatpants.”
What gives a typeface its particular character? In particular, Aidan and I were interested in how we attribute gender qualities to fonts, because these characteristics seemed mind-bogglingly intrinsic to us. It is hard to deny that the Signpainter is girlier than Copperplate.
Lacking much knowledge of design, we came up with some scientific terms to describe the factors that imbue a font with flavor. Some of the most influential attributes, we agreed, were the “scrunching” of the letters, and the “contrast between the thicks and thins.” We found that “fat downstroke bits” seemed feminizing, while serifs were kind of manly. We could not say why. I decided to investigate.
A recent study at Concordia University suggests that “script fonts” convey femininity, while “display fonts” are masculine. Display is a broad term used to describe the legibility and geometric loudness of a font. While this study and others teach us which aspects of a font make it feminine or masculine, the why is complex and untouched, left at the mercy of speculation. Here’s what I think: A display font is eye-catching, clear, and meant for headers and logos. In my experience, even progressive socialities prefer quiet women over loud ones. I mean quiet in every sense of the word. You know the drill: Stand out, but not too much. Perhaps this is why, as the article claims, we associate the most vociferous fonts with masculinity.
In our discussion, Aidan and I posited a biological component of font gendered-ness. We imagined a complex relationship between fonts, handwriting, and physiology. This idea came from what I like to call the Brush Font Takeover.
Over the past year or so, brush fonts have infected everything from coffee cups to wall decor to blogs. As I fell headfirst into the blogosphere, I was, and still am, exposed to multiple hyper-brushed pages a day. The popularity of brush fonts is understandable. They’re friendly, yet professional. I even liked them, the first fifty-or-so times I saw them. What’s harder to understand is why so many of these fonts are stylized in a feminine way. There’s nothing inherently feminine about making letters with a paintbrush, so why isn’t there more variety among brush fonts?
I think that ‘brush font’ has simply come to indicate a font that presents an idealized version of feminine handwriting. While the brushstrokes themselves certainly have some appeal, I think that the shapes of the letters are far more important here. Popular brush fonts make a feminine-styled company/brand/blog seem friendly and approachable, thanks to the implied intimacy of handwriting. These fonts are good for business. I have only ever seen them used by women.
The hallmark style of brush fonts made me realize something that, in retrospect, seems obvious: many fonts are (at least distantly) based on handwriting styles. Aidan and I wondered if some of the differences between fonts– especially their perceived masculinity and femininity– could be related to sexual dimorphism between males and females. Basically, we wanted to know whether difference in hand size and structure had some impact on how females and males wrote, and whether this impact influenced fonts.
An Elsevier study examined the “digit ratio” of a number of subject’s hands in relation to their handwriting. Exposure to certain sex hormones in utero is known to influence the ratio of index finger length to ring finger length. Males tend to have shorter index fingers, while the ring-to-index ratio in females is about even. The Elsevier researchers measure subjects’ digit ratio, then took corresponding handwriting samples. The handwriting samples were “rated for gender” by a separate group of participants. The overall gender rating of each subject’s handwriting was then compared to their digit ratio. Interestingly, in women, a correlation was found between digit ratio and gender rating. The more a woman’s hand fit the mold of standard female physiology, the more likely the raters were to guess her gender accurately. No such correlation was found in men. Why?
Aidan and I hypothesized that more sexually feminine people– e.g. those who had, among other factors, received the most feminizing combination before birth– might be expected to perform femininity more than ‘less feminine’ females, and that this same expectation was not placed on males. An anecdotal experience comes to mind. When I was in fifth grade, a group of girls would get together at recess to copy one person’s handwriting, which was deemed the prettiest. Of course, many social factors and preferences are inherent in this interaction, not just the performance of femininity. But this memory reminds me that, in terms of sex and gender, biology rarely stands alone. If there is a physiological component to the genderedness of handwriting, it is probably negligible compared to the social aspects.
The gender attributes of fonts, which we tend to take for granted, emphasize the complexity of gender and its related issues. When it comes to sex and gender, many of us take the Nature vs. Nurture– aka the All-or-Nothing– approach. We say, for example, that a man acts a certain way either because he is a man, or because he is taught to do so. It is hard to acknowledge the in-between space where factors converge. But the interplay of social and biological influences on gender is as nuanced as the spacing and loops that give a font its personality. Ignoring any facet gives us a lopsided, lifeless result.