Friday, April 4, 2008

Can a font make you lose your appetite?

A cautionary tale about menus (and invitations)

I believe that “fonts have feelings” – their emotional impact can drive you to make choices on a level that you may not even be aware of. In my February 4 post, I talked about an article analyzing the potential impact of fonts on how voters make their choices for presidential candidates. Well, that article was correct in its prediction that John McCain would be the Republican nominee. Time will tell if the article was right about Barack Obama winning the Democratic nomination.

A few days ago, a Boston Globe restaurant review started by wondering why so few of the people who looked at the posted menu actually came into the restaurant. Here is an excerpt from the review by James Reed (March 29, 2008) – I’m hiding the name of the restaurant (they’ve got enough problems):

“Twenty-seven. That's an awful lot of people we watched as they considered dinner at (the restaurant) and then quickly moved on down the street. It was a recent Saturday night, during the prime dinner hours between 7 and 9 p.m., and one by one, would-be diners lingered over the menu posted outside and kept walking…Eventually, though, we figured out why people kept strolling by. Let's start with the typography on the restaurant's sign. It sounds silly, even ridiculous, I know, but (the restaurant) suffers from what one of us keenly described as "hair-salon font." It's true: The slanted, curly-cue script, which extends to the menu, makes it hard to decipher even a simple word like "agnolotti." © Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

The evening that the review was published, I started reading Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan by Paula Marantz Cohen. My husband’s sisters, Ellen and Laura, recommended this book to me as “light reading.” They never mentioned what the book was about, so it was much to my surprise that I discovered it began with Carla, the main character, fighting with her daughter, Stephanie, about selecting an invitation for Stephanie’s upcoming bat mitzvah.

Carla was unprepared for the confrontation. From Chapter One: “Carla hadn’t thought that picking out an invitation would be so complicated. After all, how hard could it be to choose a good paper stock with a colored border and some curly type?”

Sounds as if Carla was talking about the same kind of “hair salon” font that the restaurant chose for its menu. I think the reviewer was right – in addition to being hard to read, the "curly-cue" font sends the wrong message about the restaurant’s personality.

The first moral of this story? Pay attention to the message you’re trying to communicate when you select a font for anything. The same font that works for a bat mitzvah invitation may not work so well on an upscale Italian restaurant menu.

The second moral? Be prepared for the amount of emotion that gets invested in the invitation selection process. Again, from Chapter One of Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan: "The many trivial, hard-to-differentiate variables involved in picking out a bat mitzvah invitation were just the sort of thing liable to cause a meltdown." All the more reason to showcase the "winning" bar/bat mitzvah invitation with a framed Purple Raincoat collage - a great gift for the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl as well as a wonderful keepsake for the parents. To get ready, you may want to start checking out the wide selection of invitations available online - eInvite, Purple Raincoat's online invitation partner, is a great place to begin.

The third moral? Get your hands on a copy of this book if you’re anywhere near the bar/bat mitzvah years. The story of how bar/bat mitzvah planning can take on a life of its own will resonate with you and make you smile – sometimes with laughter, sometimes in painful recognition of your own experience. I’m not done with the book, but in addition to choosing an invitation it has already covered the joys of building the guest list, selecting a caterer, developing a menu, hiring entertainment, and designing centerpieces – all done within the context of a community where “keeping up with the Joneses” can drive a family way over its budget. The book is a selection of the Hadassah Book Club, and includes a reading group guide. This would be a fun one to discuss over coffee – or better yet, a glass of wine. Happy reading!

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