When Fancy Fonts Work


Restaurant menu italic font

Now that you followed my advice in Convince With Simple Fonts and eliminated complicated fonts from your websites and printed material, I’m going to tell you that there is one situation where fancy, hard to read fonts can actually work better than simple ones. If you are selling a costly product, describing it using a hard to read font will suggest to the viewer that more effort went into creating that product. As part of their ongoing cognitive fluency research, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan found that restaurant menus are one such case.

In the same study I discussed in the “simple font” post mentioned above, If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do – Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation, Song and Schwarz presented test subjects with a description of a menu item printed in either a simple font and a more hard to read font. The subjects who saw the difficult font rated the skills needed by the chef significantly higher than the subjects who saw the simple font.

Restaurant Menu Lessons

These findings suggest that a restaurant wanting to justify higher prices could print the menu descriptions in a font which is harder to read. In addition, other steps that affect the cognitive fluency characteristics of the description could amplify the effect of the fancy font. Long descriptions with big words will also slow down the reader and imply that more effort and skill is needed to prepare the dish. The menu snippet in the illustration exploits several of these characteristics, employing mixed fonts and and unusually long descriptive text.

Of course, it is logical that the content itself should also suggest the skill and time needed to prepare the dish. As with most marketing efforts, best results occur when all the elements are in sync. Other steps to use a restaurant’s menu to boost sales are described in Neuro-Menus and Restaurant Psychology.

Beyond Restaurants

There’s a Neuromarketing takeaway here for all kinds of businesses: complicated fonts make things seem more difficult. If you want to convince customers that your product involves tedious steps to make, or that great skill is required to deliver the service you provide, slow the reader down with harder to read text and big words.

One Big Caution

To me, the danger in trying to exploit cognitive fluency using fancy fonts and complicated text is that your potential customers won’t be motivated enough to struggle through it. Restaurant customers are likely to read the descriptions because they have no choice if they want to order food and know what they will get. Customers looking at a product brochure or a print ad might simply skip the text altogether. Could a lingering sense of complexity still remain, even from a brief glance? Perhaps. But I’d recommend using this approach sparingly – overdo it and you might lose the customer’s attention completely.

  1. Phil Smith says

    Isn’t this a corollary of the “Cadillac Effect”, where certain people are willing to spend more for something for no other reason than that it costs more? And if that’s the case, doesn’t it imply that this only works for luxury items – not simply expensive ones? Even if the item does take lots of time and skill?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There’s no doubt that people will pay more for a luxury brand, whether it’s Tiffany, Rolex, or Cadillac. This effect is a bit different, though. People will also pay more for workmanship, preparation effort, and so on. (These same characteristics are often associated with luxury items, of course.) A hard-to-read font doesn’t imply luxury, but it does imply time and effort. Thanks for stopping by, Phil.


  2. Patrick Mahan says

    Roger, would you consider the strategy to slow readers down with big words and fancy fonts something like… “intentional cognitive disfluency”?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s as good a name as any, Patrick!

      It occurs to me that many academic papers use obscure jargon, convoluted sentence structure, etc. Perhaps the objective is to seem deeper and more profound than they really are. “!ntentional cognitive disfluency!”

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