Try to Forgetica

research, legibility
Rob Waller

Sans Forgetica, the ‘scientifically designed’ font that ‘improves memory’, still has not appeared in a peer-reviewed article authored by its originators at RMIT. See my previous blog posts.

From the last email I received from the authors I understand it was being reviewed by a journal in March, and of course these things do take time. It has, however, appeared in peer-reviewed papers by other teams, who in the eighteen months or so since the Sans Forgetica study was announced, have found the time to raise funds, run studies and submit them to journals.

Both teams make their opinion known in forthright and unmistakeable titles:

‘Sans Forgetica is not desirable for learning’ (Geller et al 2020) and ‘Disfluent difficulties are not desirable difficulties: the (lack of) effect of Sans Forgetica on memory’ (Taylor et al 2020).

Geller includes an unusually blunt dressing-down of the RMIT team in his conclusion:

‘As scientists, our job is to properly evaluate the evidence and correct erroneous information. Accordingly, we are compelled to argue against the claims made by the Sans Forgetica team and various news outlets and conclude that Sans Forgetica should not be used as a learning technique to bolster learning.’

In the interests of full disclosure, a third paper, by Eskanazi and Nix (2020) found some benefits in a very specific context for learning word meanings and spellings (only for high-skill learners).

Dig a little deeper into how Sans Forgetica was developed as a project, and it turns out to be entirely conceived as a publicity exercise by RMIT’s advertising agency Naked Communications. All power to Naked, who seem to have won quite a few awards for the campaign. For example it was best in class in the Communications category of the prestigious Good Design Awards, , and it won a D&AD award. In fact the more I googled the more appeared.

And it’s listed as one of the ‘best ads on TV’.

Here’s what they say about it:

At a time of the year when universities are fighting for the attention of year 12 students who are weighing up their higher education options, Naked, a strategy and creative agency, has worked with RMIT University to develop a campaign with a world-first innovation. Working with researchers and academics from RMIT’s School of Design and Behavioural Business Lab, Naked has created a new font specifically designed and tested to help students remember typed study notes. It’s called Sans Forgetica.

It’s a little shocking to see how a university as prestigious as RMIT has allowed itself to turn the respected process-driven disciplines of design and behavioural research into a publicity stunt.

But they couldn’t be prouder. An RMIT-authored piece in FE News repeats much the same story, and recounts how good Sans Forgetica has been for the careers of team members:

Since the font’s launch, [Janneke] Blijlevens has begun collaborations with education researchers, secondary schools and clinical psychologists to further the work. The Behavioural Business Lab has also signed an agreement with Icon Agency to inform evidence-based social change interventions with its insights and methods…
…Behavioural economics lecturer Dr Jo Peryman said the group was excited to see where Sans Forgetica went next. “As the font was designed to help students prepare for their exams, I think our next challenge is to test Sans Forgetica in the classroom,” she said.

That's genuinely really good to hear that the publicity for Sans Forgetica has opened up all these important collaborations. But excuse me, Jo: listen to yourself. You’ve released this laboratory creation into the wild and allowed an advertising agency to make exaggerated and un-nuanced claims about it, but only now think you should actually test it in a real situation.

The real success of Sans Forgetica has been for Naked Communications. As they report in Marketing magazine:

Sans Forgetica has captured imaginations both locally and globally, and has proven to be a ground-breaking success from both a brand and acquisition perspective. While data for university preferences is not yet available, all lead indicators are showing that by finding a way to be more useful, Sans Forgetica is delivering a truly memorable result:
• 700 million earned media impressions
• $7 million earned media value
• 27 million social impressions
• 69% share of category voice
• 265,000 font downloads (objective was 22,500), and
• 87,000 email leads generated.
Results above are for the first six weeks after the launch: the key revision and exam window for school leavers. Given the nature of the project, font downloads and leads will continue to be delivered on an ongoing basis. So much more than a traditional advertising campaign, Sans Forgetica has become a product with its own place in culture. People are sharing and using the font in their own quirky ways, and academics around the world are in discussions with RMIT about further research applying Sans Forgetica in clinical applications, as well as extending it to other languages.

Those results are truly mind-boggling, given they are just for the first six weeks. This thing is still rumbling along on Twitter, in various languages.

So well done, guys, but perhaps next year you could work with the Physics Department to invent cold fusion. That should get some media impressions.

Jason Geller, Sara D Davis, & Daniel Peterson (2020, May 23). Sans forgetica is not desirable for learning.

Andrea Taylor, Mevagh Sanson, Ryan Burnell, Kimberley A. Wade & Maryanne Garry (2020) Disfluent difficulties are not desirable difficulties: the (lack of) effect of Sans Forgetica on memory, Memory, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2020.1758726

Michael A Eskenazi & Bailey Nix (2020). Individual differences in the desirable difficulty effect during lexical acquisition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Advance online publication.

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