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I heard various rumors years back that Georgia was the most authoritative font. The research was fairly underwhelming: a student had done less than a dozen papers in various Microsoft TrueType core fonts, and the three papers in Georgia got A's.

Is there any kind of research or consensus about authorities of fonts in general for on-screen reading? Does Georgia have an advantage in being a system font on many systems?

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  • You might want to check with graphicdesign.stackexchange.com. This answer is interesting: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/131313/…
    – Izquierdo
    Sep 24 at 20:05
  • Do you mean 'authoritative' in its meaning of 'reliable' or 'commanding'? Sep 27 at 10:36
  • @Izquierdo, I agree, there's some interesting answers there. But they all loop back to perception and experience and then work from there. Not to be argumentative, but I feel OP's question belongs here first and foremost. Sep 27 at 10:38
  • Sure, I think this is a question that could fit in more than one Stack Exchange. Just wanted to make sure OP knew about the other.
    – Izquierdo
    Sep 27 at 13:32
  • @RoAchterberg More "reliable" than "commanding," although something of both. Sep 28 at 12:32

2 Answers 2

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I think this merits a two-part answer:

Approach 1: Perception/Psychology based

Is there a font which is globally, objectively, psychologically always the most authoritative, because it appeals to our visual apparatus in that way?

In a way, no: Someone speaking Chinese or Arab is not going to be impressed with your Latin letters, no matter how "authoritative" you make them. But this may be a bit tongue-in-cheeck, so let's limit ourselves to Western lettering.

So there is some research in this direction:

  • Amar, J., Droulers, O., & Legohérel, P. (2017) research the effect of typeface on traveling advertisement and indeed prove that different fonts yield different results. They are mostly trying to get the word out that this matters, so the study does not really forward advice.
  • This 400 page dissertation researches the influence of font property on their perceived personality, and gets quite specific for some fonts. It does not use the label authoritative, but you may find some ideas here.
  • Seeing typeface personality: Emotional responses to form as tone explores a similar topic and offers the following advice, which may help you:

large contrasts in stroke widths, cap height, and aspect ratio generally feel “interesting,” but also “attractive” or “aggressive,” depending on other factors; low-variety and low-contrast forms generally feel “professional” but also “reliable” or “boring.”

  • There is some stuff on Georgia being fairly readable, which is rarely bad, but I don't think I found the research you mentioned...

Of course you need some knowledge of typography to make sense of this lingo, but this may get you somewhere.

Personally I think this approach is mostly academic with the current state of research which brings me to...

Approach 2: Culture based

Think a second about what you mean when you say "authoritative" - being an authority. How do you do that?

I would say that is almost entirely dependent on the culture you are trying to be an authority in! In the West, we wear suit and tie in formal meetings to radiate authority - then there is this guy who obviously has a very different idea on what an authority ought to look like.

To get back to the point; I see no reason why fonts should be any different - which typefaces are authoritative has everything to do with (sub)culture. As for specific advice, find which subculture you are trying to impress and find out what passes as authoritative in that context. Some examples:

  • If you want something that looks legally authoritative, @ro-achterberg's advice is very good - check what font government or contract works use
  • To mention academics, one of the papers I cited above was published by the very prevalent company Elsevier - their font is always Galliard. If you do that as well, you may look like a professional scientist (or like a wanna-be, that is another question to consider)
  • If you were to make a meme for Reddit in ca. 2017, you better use Impact to be taken seriously.
  • When publishing math-related content, imitating the typesetting software LaTeX and its default font Computer Modern might go over well.
  • When applying to a company, typesetting your application in a font similar but not equivalent to their branding would probably convey best that you understand the industry.

...I hope this illustrates the point. You probably hoped for a nice top-10 list of fonts; instead you got this essay - hopefully it still helps you!

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This is hard to say, because what is perceived to a user as authoritative (mostly 'reliable') will be determined in part by their past exposure to texts from the various authorities they've encountered. The other part being your brand identity and perception, along with the tone and voice that you will communicate in.

For The Netherlands at least, and as is probably the case for most of the Western world, these are some common sources:

  • Various diplomas and certificates you've gotten
  • Government branding
  • Legal copy
  • Various signage

However, whereas a blackletter/gothic typeface that is common to many diplomas/certificates may seem authoritative, it may not at all suit your case. Conversely, both the US and Dutch government opted for a largely universal sans serif that could have easily been used by an online toy store. Yet the gov copy still reads authoritative because of the 'brand experience'.

Ask yourself, which authoritative sources have most of your users had shared experiences with? Which typefaces were common to them and which of these will best fit your brand experience?

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