At first glance, the typeface Sans Forgetica looks like an alphabet that’s forgotten how to behave. Letterforms take familiar shapes, then truncate abruptly—as if the capital M accidentally left behind its lower point, or the lowercase h just can’t quite recall how its curved form ends. The italics remember to slant, but they go the wrong way. The typical conventions of type design that ensure legibility are just barely there; Sans Forgetica is legible, but words take a bit longer to figure out. It’s almost like you’re relearning how to read.
The gap-ridden, left-leaning typeface, billed as a new “memory-boosting” font, was created by a type designer and a team of behavioral scientists at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). In the first two weeks after its release at the beginning of October, Sans Forgetica and its claim to “help you remember your study notes” was covered everywhere from The Washington Post to the CNN to The Guardian, and the font was downloaded over 200,000 times. Based on the sans serif Albion and informed by well-established principles of cognitive psychology and behavioral science, the typeface purposely discards almost all established type design rules. Sans Forgetica’s novel appearance requires readers to pay more attention, which in turn aids retention and recall.
“When we make something unfamiliar or a bit different from what we are used to, our brain needs to put more effort in to process it and because of that, the memory trace becomes stronger.”
To design the typeface, Stephen Banham, RMIT lecturer in typography, joined forces with behavioral economist Dr. Jo Peryman and lecturer Dr. Janneke Blijlevens, both of the RMIT Behavioral Business Lab. The team started with one of the simplest principles of type design: when roman text switches to bold, italic, or all caps, this is essentially a cue to read and understand these words in a different way from those surrounding them. Sans Forgetica’s quirks prompt the brain to do something similar. The unpredictable breaks in the letterforms coupled with their lack of a discernible visual rhythm require the reader to slow down and puzzle through the text more carefully. Meanwhile, the letters’ eight degree leftward slant (a typographic convention typically used by cartographers to indicate the names of rivers) focuses attention in the same way. All of these elements help deploy deeper levels of information processing based on the principle known as “desirable difficulty,” a term attributed to Stanford University professor Robert A. Bjork, which asserts that by making something harder to take in, the reader is forced to spend more time with it.
“We rely on perceptual processing of information by the brain,” says Blijlevens. “The brain categorizes what it sees to understand how to react. When we see an oddly shaped horse, we’re like, ‘What is that? Should I run away? What should I do?’ When we make something unfamiliar or a bit different from what we are used to, our brain needs to put more effort in to process it and because of that, the memory trace becomes stronger.”
Research on the relationship between fonts and memory hit an inflection point in 2010 with a Princeton University paper that suggests that hard-to-read or “disfluent” fonts aid the process of recall. Daniel Oppenheimer, now a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of the 2010 study, laid the theoretical groundwork for a memory-enhancing font, but his team never took the next step of actually creating one.
“I’m used to working toward clarity and legibility—elements that, to be honest, didn’t play a part in this.”
Our brains automatically associate perceptual fluency, or ease of storage, with retrieval fluency, ease of recall. By spending more time to absorb the information, the theory goes, it will stick with you longer, making the information easier to remember down the line. In essence, Sans Forgetica aids recall by slowing down the process of reading. And it seems to be working: In tests on about 300 students, the participants retained information at a rate of 57% when it was typeset in Sans Forgetica. When the same information was presented in Arial, the retention rate dropped to 50%.
In this particular undertaking, typical typeface design criteria such as aesthetics and legibility take a back seat to science. Naturally this represented a design quandary for Banham, who says, “Sans Forgetica is probably the most counterintuitive project I’ve ever worked on; it forced me to completely reconsider all the things I’ve been doing as a type designer for the past 30 years. I’m so used to working toward clarity and legibility—elements that, to be honest, didn’t play a part in this.”
Working with about 100 students, the team tested three preliminary typeface versions in varying degrees of difficulty, starting with one that simply featured backslant, one that used backslant plus gaps in the letters, and a third that added asymmetry to the mix. The tests involved a distraction task, an exercise in which students had to learn word pairs in a certain time frame, and a test in which students were given one word of the pair and had to recall the word that went along with it. “We found that the pairs presented in Sans Forgetica were remembered 69% of the time, and 61% each time for both the not-so-difficult version and the most difficult one, so it was clear that we had found the sweet spot,” says Blijlevens.
Industrial design god Raymond Loewy’s MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle played a part in the look of Sans Forgetica as well. Loewy strove to provide users with the most advanced designs, but not more advanced than what they were able to comfortably accept and embrace. “With this project, we hoped to hit the intersection of ‘difficult, yet acceptable’, similar to ‘advanced, yet acceptable,’” Blijlevens says.
Yet a typeface that relies on novelty to jolt the brain into absorption and retention also runs a fairly significant risk: What happens when the reader gets used to Sans Forgetica? The Mere Exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon whereby people express a preference for things simply because they are familiar. As readers become accustomed to Sans Forgetica’s initially odd appearance, grow more comfortable with it, and start reading it faster, will the retention rate of information decline? Will their brains simply adapt to the difficulties posed by the typeface in such a way as to eliminate the benefits?
Further long-term studies are the only way to determine whether this is likely. For now, the early results are encouraging, based as they are on solid principles of cognitive neuroscience. But while an increase of 7% in memory retention is measurable and real, it also doesn’t leave much room for decline within those results over time; in other words, if readers start to lose even 1% of retention every few months as they become accustomed to Sans Forgetica, soon the advantage is lost.
There are physical changes in the brain related to long term memory—a quantifiable difference between learning something quickly forgotten (like a phone number) and learning something that endures (like multiplication tables). A study investigating whether these brain changes actually take place after exposure to Sans Forgetica could shed additional light on the typeface’s effectiveness.