Why you won't forget this new typeface

Sceptical about the efficacy of a font designed to encourage better memory function, Geraldine Walsh put Sans Forgetica to the test, with a little help from an Ed Sheeran song

Why you won't forget this new typeface

Sceptical about the efficacy of a font designed to encourage better memory function, Geraldine Walsh put Sans Forgetica to the test, with a little help from an Ed Sheeran song

Anything that gives our memory a boost is welcome, but I for one am usually dubious about whether it works. I’ve questioned why a healthy diet would juice up my brain power, I’ve wondered if routine gym sessions while listening to Ed Sheeran would make me remember the song lyrics (making up my own words is preferable to remembering them in my case) and I’ve given my brain the necessary workout with crosswords and Sudoku.

They’ve all proved advantageous, in some way, to my memory, as the health and vitality of my brain receives a daily boost, making it, and me, work harder and better.

Our brains are wonderfully obscure organs that need activity and excitement to stay on form. Which is one reason, aside from being a bit of a nerd, that I got excited when I saw RMIT University in Melbourne had developed a new font which claims to encourage memory.

In order to appease my nerd side, this new font is actually a typeface. But let’s not get too pedantic with semantics for the average user who wouldn’t know their Comic Sans from their Helvetica, which is where the designers of Sans Forgetica derived the name from.

Created by a multidisciplinary team of typographic designers and behavioural scientists using psychological theory from the Behavioural Business Lab at RMIT, the font was developed to encourage the brain to remember more. According to the developers, Sans Forgetica was based on very specific design theories and psychological philosophies which they assure will aid memory retention.

Developers tested the font with an online and laboratory experiment using a cohort of approximately 400 Australian university students.

A range of fonts was used, each with a variety of obstructions, which led the developers to determine which font led to the best memory retention. Sans Forgetica, with its style and broken appearance, was determined to be the font which strayed enough from conventional design principles without becoming too illegible, and subsequently was considered to increase memory retention of written information.

It’s a unique development in the world of design principles and cognitive ability.

Dr Jo Peryman, chair of the RMIT Behavioural Business Lab, says: “We believe this is the first time that specific principles of design theory have been combined with specific principles of psychology theory in order to create a font.”

My interest was piqued but, despite the large sample size, my doubting Thomas was evident until I tested the font myself. The biggest test I could think of was back to my favourite experiment of attempting to remember Ed Sheeran lyrics.

Not the most sophisticated test, but one I knew would tell me if this font was difficult to read for the sake of it or whether it truly did have memory retention qualities. Over a few days, I read and re-read the lyrics to ‘Castle on a Hill’. I can safely say I remembered more than I thought I would — not all the lyrics and not necessarily in order, but that’s not a surprise considering I’m usually a lost cause when it comes to lyrics. Whether that was because I was invested in experimenting with this font and my brain subconsciously remembered more, or whether Sans Forgetica itself embedded the lyrics in my memory is another question.

Considering our brains are ever-evolving structures, the concept of how this font is meant to correspond with the brain means we are supposed to remember more. However, our brain is cleverer than we think, and I’m left wondering if because we are told that it’s a memory retention tool, it sparks some neural component that opens up our memory sponges.

Dr Naomi Lavelle, science consultant and Irish Examiner columnist, however, explains how our brains adapt to new and challenging elements or obstacles put in the way of learning. “As we learn, our brains are constantly changing, building new neuronal connections, reinforcing others and reducing or eliminating ones that are no longer required. It is the basis of how we all learn, and it is called plasticity.”

Based on a principle, ‘Desirable Difficulty’, Sans Forgetica encourages the reader to be more mindful and concentrate harder on the written sentences in front of them. It’s a psychological trick, as the design is harder to read. It’s not impossible to read, but requires extra attention and focus, making the brain work harder.

Janneke Blijlevens, RMIT senior marketing lecturer, says: “When we want to learn something and remember it, it’s good to have a little bit of an obstruction added to that learning process because if something is too easy, it doesn’t create a memory trace. If it’s too difficult, it doesn’t leave a memory trace either. So, you need to look for that sweet spot.”

Based on my ‘Castle on a Hill’ experiment, I can see how the researchers have achieved this and how this font will be of benefit, to some degree, especially to students.

However, the difficulty in reading the font gave me a headache, which is why I used it sporadically over a few sessions, after learning the hard way.

Typography lecturer Stephen Banham, who was on the design team, advises short, sharp bursts to aid revision.

Sans Forgetica is available free at www.sansforgetica.rmit

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