Update March 2012
See my expanded critique of Colin Wheildon’s legibility research.
Back in 1998 when Times New Roman was still widely used on the web, my then boss made sure we always designed our web sites with Arial, as she hated the look of serif fonts on the web. Was it the case that sans serif fonts were more legible, or was it just a matter of taste?
In 2003 as part of my master’s degree I reviewed over 50 empirical studies in typography and found a definitive answer.
An argument has been raging for decades within the scientific and typographic communities on what seems a very insignificant issue: Do serifs contribute to the legibility of typefaces, and by definition, are sans serif typefaces less legible? To date, no one has managed to provide a conclusive answer to this issue.
Part 1 provides typographical definitions.
Part 2 reviews the evidence for and against the legibility of serif and sans serif typefaces.
Legibility vs. readability
Legibility is concerned with the very fine details of typeface design, and in an operational context this usually means the ability to recognise individual letters or words. Readability however concerns the optimum arrangement and layout of whole bodies of text:
An illegible type, set it how you will, cannot be made readable. But the most legible of types can be made unreadable if it is set to too wide a measure, or in too large or too small a size for a particular purpose.(Dowding 1957, p.5; in Lund, 1999 )
There are many elements in the design of a typeface which can contribute to its legibility.
Serif / Sans Serif
“Serifs” are the small finishing strokes on the end of a character. “Sans serif” fonts do not have these small finishing strokes.
Point size is perhaps the element most used to describe the legibility of a type face, but it can also be the most deceptive. Point size is a legacy from the letterpress system, where each letter is held on a small metal block. The point size actually refers to the size of this metal block, and not the actual size of the letter. The letter does not have to take up the full area of the block face, so two fonts with the same nominal point size can quite easily have different actual sizes. ( Bix, 2002)
X-height refers to the height of the lower case “x” in a typeface. It is often a better indicator of the apparent size of a typeface than point size ( Poulton, 1972 ; Bix, 2002 ).
Counters are the “negative spaces” inside a character. They are also good indicators of the actual size of the type.
Ascenders and descenders
Ascenders and are the vertical strokes which rise above the body of a character or x-height. Descenders are strokes which fall below the baseline of the x-height.
Overview of legibility research: serif vs. sans serif
There are plenty of studies that show no difference between the legibility of serif and sans serif typefaces ( Tinker, 1932 ; Zachrisson, 1965 ; Bernard et al., 2001 ; Tullis et al., 1995 ; De Lange et al., 1993 ; Moriarty & Scheiner, 1984 ; Poulton, 1965 ; Coghill, 1980) ).
There are some high profile studies which claim to show the superiority of serif typefaces ( Robinson et al., 1983 ; Burt, 1959 ; Weildon, 1995 ) but these have been soundly criticised on points of methodology. ( Lund, 1997, 1998, 1999 ). See this post for a more detailed critique of Weildon’s research.
Particularly interesting is the case of Sir Cyril Burt, well known in psychology circles for being accused of fabricating his results. It turns out that he is likely to have continued this deceptive behaviour in his typographical work ( Hartley & Rooum, 1983 ).
Unfortunately, many researchers, typographers and graphic designers continue to cite Burt and Weildon uncritically, meaning that many of the informal resources on typography found on the web today continues to propagate unsubstantiated claims on the utility of serifs.
Most disappointing however, is that in more than one hundred years of legibility research, researchers have failed to form a concrete body of theoretical knowledge on the part that serifs may play in legibility ( Lund, 1999 ). Nor have they managed to make their work sufficiently known in the typographic community ( Spencer, 1968, p.6 ).
Arguments in favour of serif typefaces
Serifs are used to guide the horizontal “flow” of the eyes; The lack of serifs is said to contribute to a vertical stress in sans serifs, which is supposed to compete with the horizontal flow of reading ( De Lange et al., 1993 )
These are the most common claims when trying to make a case for the utility of serifs. However, serifs cannot in any way be said to “guide the eye”. In 1878 Professor Emile Javal of the University of Paris established that the eyes did not move along a line of text in one smooth sweep but in a series of quick jerks which he called saccadic movements ( Spencer, 1968, p. 13 ; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989, pp. 113-123 ). Unfortunately many graphic designers and typographers continue to use this rationale for the existence of serifs, due to a lack of communication and cooperation with the research community.
Serifs are used to increase spacing between letters and words to aid legibility
Serifs are not required to control letter and word spacing – in fact, serifs would be woefully inadequate for this purpose. In traditional letterpress systems, spacing is achieved with small pieces of metal inserted between the letters, and by the spacing between the letter form and the edge of the print block. Spacing is even easier to manipulate with modern computerised typesetting equipment. ( Sassoon, 1993 ; Rubinstein, 1988 )
Serifs are used to increase contrast (and irregularity) between different letters to improve identification
Well established research has shown that whole words can be recognised just as quickly as letters during an eye fixation and that single letters can be identified quicker when embedded in a word. Such a ‘Word superiority effect’ would indicate that serifs are not needed for distinguishing between single letters ( Reynolds, 1979 ).
Serifs are used to bind characters into cohesive ‘word wholes’
The simple Gestalt created by spaces between words would be enough to bind letters into ‘wholes’. Furthermore, other features such as character ascenders and descenders should have a much greater effect on word recognition than serifs ( Poulton, 1965 ).
Readers prefer body text set in serif typefaces, so they must be more legible
Many studies conducted in the past did indeed find a preference for serif typefaces ( Tinker, 1963 ; Zachrisson, 1965 ). However, Tinker commented that perceived legibility was due to a great extent to familiarity with the typeface. 40 years ago sans serif typefaces were not as common as they are now, and if these studies were repeated, it would not be surprising to find completely different results. Indeed, more recent studies have shown that computer users prefer sans serif typefaces for body text online ( Boyarski et al., 1998 , Bernard et al., 2000-2001 , Tullis et al., 1995 , Reynolds, 1979 ).
What is important to bear in mind is that in almost all legibility studies, reader preference or perceived legibility tends to be inconsistent with user performance ( Lund, 1999 ).
Serifs are used for body text because sans serif causes fatigue
It is often claimed that reading large amounts of body text set in sans serif causes fatigue, but there is no evidence to support this, as measuring fatigue has not been a concern in the vast majority of legibility research comparing serif and sans serif typefaces.
Furthermore, “no satisfactory objective method of measurement has been devised. Subjective assessments of fatigue are subject to modification by a great many factors which may be totally unrelated to the experimental situation”. ( Reynolds 1979, p313 )
Arguments in favour of sans serif typefaces
Serifs are just an historical artefact
This could be true to a great extent, especially since claims attempting to justify serifs in retrospect have been less than convincing.
Many researchers attribute the origin of serifs to the Romans, some claiming that
“Roman masons … terminated each stroke in a slab of stone with a serif to correct the uneven appearance made by their tools”. ( Craig, 1980; in Bix, 2002 ). Others state that
“design by brush before execution in stone gave rise to … tapering serifs at the terminals of many strokes”. ( Bigelow, 1981; in Rubinstein, 1988, p10 ).
What ever their origin, serifs have been around for so long that perceived legibility is very likely to have been affected by familiarity – readers tend to rate as more legible the typefaces they are most used to ( Tinker, 1963 ; Zachrisson, 1965 ).
Sans serif are better on the web
Although studies of screen reading show no difference between reading from screen and from paper ( Dillon, 1992 ; Bernard, 2001 ), there could be some validity to this argument.
When typefaces are digitised for use on computers, the letter forms have to fit within a relatively small pixel grid, often leading to what are called the “jaggies” ( Rubinstein, 1988 ). Many web professionals such as graphic designers claim that this relatively low resolution cannot render effectively enough the fine finishing strokes of serif typefaces, and that sans serif typefaces lend themselves more naturally to being digitised, and come out cleaner and thus more legible.
However, this has not been borne out by recent evidence ( Bernard, 2001 , Boyarski et al., 1998 , Tullis et al., 1995 , De Lange ), that shows no difference in legibility between serif and sans serif font on the web.
Sans serif is better at small sizes. Sans serif fonts survive reproduction and smearing because of their simple forms
Some research has shown that serifs may actually become visual noise at very small sizes, detracting from the main body shape of the letter form ( Morris, et al., 2001 ). However, this has not been confirmed in tests of continuous reading ( Poulton, 1972 ). Other factors such as stroke thickness, counter size and x-height are likely to have a far greater effect in preserving the overall identity of a letter form whether it be through smearing or size reduction ( Poulton, 1972 ; Reynolds, 1979 ).
Sans serif is better for children learning to read
Books produced for children are often printed with sans serif text as teachers claim that the simplicity of the letter shapes makes them more recognisable ( Coghill, 1980) , Walker, 2001 ). But studies with child participants have found no difference in their ability to read either style of typeface. ( Coghill, 1980) ; Zachrisson, 1965 , Walker, 2001 )
What initially seemed a neat dichotomous question of serif versus sans serif has resulted in a body of research consisting of weak claims and counter-claims, and study after study with findings of “no difference”. Is it the case that more than one hundred years of research has been marred by repeated methodological flaws, or are serifs simply a typographical “red herring”?
It is of course possible that serifs or the lack of them have an effect on legibility, but it is very likely that they are so peripheral to the reading process that this effect is not even worth measuring ( Lund, 1999 ).
Indeed, a greater difference in legibility can easily be found within members of the same type family than between a serif and a sans serif typeface. ( Tinker, 1963 , Zachrisson, 1965 ). There are also other factors such as x-height, counter size, letter spacing and stroke width which are more significant for legibility than the presence or absence of serifs. Poulton, 1972 ; Reynolds, 1979 )
Finally, we should accept that most reasonably designed typefaces in mainstream use will be equally legible, and that it makes much more sense to argue in favour of serif or sans serif typefaces on aesthetic grounds than on the question of legibility. ( Bernard, 2001 ; Tinker, 1963 )
Bell R.C., Sullivan J.L.F. (1981). Student preferences in typography. Programmed Learning and Educational Technology18(2), 57-61.
Comment about this source:
A typical study on the aesthetic quality of fonts – these types of studies are only useful for a short time before fashion or technology changes the whims of readers. That said, they do need to be done from time to time if what I say in the conclusion is true.
Bernard, M., Mills, M. (2000). So, what size and type of font should I use on my website? Usability News 2.2[Online]. http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/2S/font.htm
Bernard, M., Mills, M., Frank, T., McKown, J. (2001). Which font do children prefer to read online? Usability News 3.1[Online]. http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/3W/fontJR.htm
Bernard, M., Liao, C., Mills, M. (2001). Determining the best online font for older adults. Usability News 3.1[Online]. http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/3W/fontSR.htm
Bernard, M., Mills, M., Peterson, M., Storrer, K. (2001). A Comparison of Popular Online Fonts: Which is Best and When? Usability News 3.2[Online]. http://psychology.wichita.edu/surl/usabilitynews/3S/font.htm
Comment about this source:
A collection of well thought out, up to date studies from Bernard et al concentrating on fonts for the web, though it is not clear if they have been published in a peer-reviewed periodical.
Bix, L. (2002). The Elements of Text and Message Design and Their Impact on Message Legibility: A Literature Review. Journal of Design Communication, No. 4. Available at: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JDC/Spring-2002/bix.html
Comment about this source:
A nice balanced review of the elements of legibility and readability of typefaces, although does not explicitly mention readability, choosing to talk about how text is set and laid out under the “umbrella” term of legibility.
Acknowledges that the serif/sans serif debate is divided and inconclusive but refers to Burt uncritically and wheels out the old argument about serifs reinforcing horizontal eye flow.
Still, implies correctly that x-height, colour contrast, counter size and other factors are more significant for legibility than the presence or absence of serifs, and that the combination of all factors is the most important thing.
Boyarski, D., Neuwirth, C., Forlizzi, J., Regli, S.H. (1998). A Study of Fonts Designed for Screen Display. Proceedings of ACM CHI 98 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.1, 87-94.
Comment about this source:
Pits Times Roman against Georgia and Georgia against Verdana.
Burt, C. (1959). A psychological study of typography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coghill, V. (1980). Can children read familiar words in unfamiliar type? Information Design Journal 1(4), 254-260
Comment about this source:
Very interesting study which implies that because young children have not had the time or the ability to become accustomed to certain fonts, this confounding factor can be eliminated from the experiment. Coghill finds that there is no significant difference between serif and sans serif fonts although some methodological issues are worrying. For example, being a teacher she states that sometimes she couldn’t stop herself from helping the children if they couldn’t read a word, although she claims that this does not affect the validity of her study.
Dillon, A. (1992). Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.
Gaultney, V. (2000). Balancing typeface legibility and economy: practical techniques for the type designer. [Online] http://www.sil.org/~gaultney/research.html
Gillespie, J. (n.d.) Web page design for designers. [Online]http://www.wpdfd.com/wpdtypo.htm
Hartley, J. (1987). Designing electronic text: the role of print-based research.Educational Communication and Technology, 35(1), 3-17.
Hartley J. and Rooum D. (1983). Sir Cyril Burt and typography: A re-evaluation, British Journal of Psychology 74(2), 203-212.
Comment about this source:
A remarkable study showing that Burt’s habit of deception also extended into his typographical research. Lund comments that:
Donald Rooum and James Hartley have convincingly shown that Burt’s well-known dubious practices also extended into his work on legibility and typography. They point out that of 123 statements about typography in Burt’s book, only three – 3 – were either supported by data or by reference to named sources (Rooum, 1981; Hartley and Rooum, 1983; in Lund, 1995 ).
Scary! Even more scary is the fact that so many researchers cite Burt uncritically …
Humphreys, Glyn W. (1989). Visual cognition: computational, experimental, and neuropsychological perspectives. Hove : Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 273-286.
Julie A. Jacko & Andrew Sears. 2002. The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kahn, P., Lenk, K. (1995). Screen Typography: Applying Lessons of Print to Computer Displays. Seybold Report on Desktop Publishing, 7(3).
De Lange, R. W., Esterhuizen, H. L., Beatty, D. (1993). Performance differences between Times and Helvetica in a reading task.Electronic Publishing, 6(3), 241-248.
Comment about this source:
Very good section going through the arguments for and against serifs.
Lansdale, M.W., Ormerod, T.C. (1994). Understanding interfaces: A Handbook of human-computer interaction. London: Academic Press. pp. 53-59.
Lund, O. (1995). In black and white: an r&d report on typography and legibility. Review article. Information design journal, 8(1), 91-95.
Lund, O. (1997). Why serifs are (still) important.Typography Papers, 2, 91-104.
Lund, O. (1998). Type and layout: how typography and design can get your message across – or get in the way. Review article.
Information design journal, 9(1), 74-77.
Lund, O. (1999). Knowledge Construction in Typography: The case of legibility research and the legibility of sans serif typefaces. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Reading: The University of Reading, Department of Typography & Graphic Communication.
Comment about this source:
The masterwork of the whole serif / sans serif debate. Reviews a selection of 28 legibility studies (from a total of 72) since the first one in 1896 to the late 90’s, inspecting each one for holes in its internal validity. Other issues are explored such as the lack of real theory after a century of empirical research and the philosophical and historical movements affecting this strand of research.
Considering that aesthetic preference is supposed to have a significant effect upon the results of legibility studies, it would have been an ideal space to compare the results of the many preference studies conducted at the same time as the empirical studies. An analysis could have been made to see if there was a correlation with the more positive results for sans serif typefaces and the growing existence and acceptance of these same typefaces.
Includes a fascinating look behind the scenes in the history of legibility research, with Pyke’s disappointment in 1926, The scandal of Burt’s deceptions and bitter arguments over traffic signs in the 70’s.
States explicitly, however, that the thesis does not attempt to be just another legibility study, but uses serif / sans serif debate as a “lense” through which to examine the process and philosophy of scientific enquiry. A great shame that he stops there, since he is probably the most able researcher to be able to resolve the debate once and for all.
Marcus, A. (1992). Graphic design for electronic documents and user interfaces. ACM Press.
Mills, C.B., Weldon, L. J. (1987). Reading text from computer screens, ACM Computing Surveys (CSUR), 19(4), 329-357.
Moriarty, S., Scheiner, E. (1984). A study of close-set type. Journal of Applied Psychology,69, 700-702.
Morris, R. A., Berry, K., Hargreaves, K. A., Liarokapis, D. (1991). How typeface variation and typographic variation affect readability at small sizes.IS&T’s Seventh International Congress on Advances in Non-impact Printing Technologies, volume 2, edited by Ken Pietrowski, Portland, OR, USA.
Morris, R. A., Aquilante, K., et al. (2001). Serifs slow RSVP reading at very small sizes, but don”t matter at larger sizes.
Oborne, D., Holton, D. (1998). Reading from screen versus paper: there is no difference. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 28, 1-9.
Poulton, E.C. (1965). Letter differentiation and rate of comprehension in reading. Journal of Applied Psychology, 49(5), 358-362.
Poulton, E.C. (1972). Size, style, and vertical spacing in the legibility of small typefaces. Journal of Applied Psychology, 56(2), 156-161.
Pyke, R.L. (1926). Report on the Legibility of Print. Medical Research Council: Special Report. Series No. 10. UK.
Comment about this source:
Pyke give a clue to the nature of the the serif debate when he lamented:
“the problem of legibility seemed simple at the outset; it is in fact complex and elusive”.
Rayner, K. & Pollatsek, A.. (1989). The Psychology of Reading. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc. pp. 113-187.
Comment about this source:
Excellent general resource on many issues on reading, including eye movements
Reynolds, L. (1979). Legibility studies: Their relevance to present-day documentation methods. Journal of Documentation, 35(4), 307-340.
Robinson, D.O, Abbamonte, M., Evans, S.H. (1971). Why serifs are important: the perception of small print.Visible Language, 4, 353-359.
Rubinstein, R. (1988). Digital Typography. Addison Wesley Longman.
Sassoon, R. (1993). Computers and Typography.Oxford: Intellect Books.
Spencer, H. (1968). The Visible Word. London: Lund Humphries.
Tinker, M.A. (1963). Legibility of Print, 3rd edition. Iowa: Iowa State University Press.
Comment about this source:
The most prolific and respected researcher in legibility. The study cited below is the only one that deals specifically with serifs and is reprinted in this book.
Tinker, M. A., Paterson, D.G. (1932). Studies of typographical factors influencing speed of reading: X. Style of typeface. Journal of Applied Psychology, 16(6), 605-613.
Comment about this source:
A landmark study in many ways, although often misinterpreted. Tinker described his results as showing more or less equal legibility for most of the typefaces, although a slightly longer reading time for Kabel Light, the only sans serif typeface in the study, has been claimed by others to show the superiority of serif typefaces. There are problems however, as in having only one sans serif typeface, you cannot be claiming to be comparing serifs and sans serifs, but only that specific typeface – Kabel Light. Furthermore, no one is saying that Kabel Light is a particularly good example of a sans serif typeface. Thirdly, chances are that if you performed the study today, the results could easily go in the favour of Kabel Light, since people are simply more used to sans serif typefaces.
Tullis, T. S., Boynton, J. L., Hersh, H. (1995). Readability of Fonts in the Windows Environment (Interactive Poster). Proceedings of ACM CHI’95 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2, 127-128.
Walker, S. (2001). Typography for children: serif or sans?. Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, The University of Reading [Online] http://www.textmatters.com/kidstype/serif_or_sans_.html
White, J.V. (1988). Graphic Design for the Electronic Age. New York: Watson-Guptill Publishers.
Weildon, C. (1995). Type and layout: How typography and design can get your message across–or get in your way. Berkeley: Strathmoor.
Zachrisson, B. (1965). Studies in the Legibility of Printed Text. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
Comment about this source:
A contemporary of Tinker, disagreed often on methods but found largely similar results in terms of legibility differences between serif and sans serif typefaces.
Excellent research! It doesn’t help me choose the font for my thesis, but at least I can debunk anyone who makes false claims about my typeface choice, whatever it ends up being (I’m sure I’m not using Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri).
I would suggest that you would not harm your chances by using a serif font
I quite like Georgia online.
I love Georgia too. Also Droid Serif.
Readability uses Serif as well. So does Washington Times. And Lifehacker. And NYTimes and …. 🙂 You get the idea.
I would suggest Baskerville.
It is excellent and useful research. However, I suggest that Colin Wheildon’s book, “Type and Layout: How Typography and Design can get your Message Across – or Get in the Way,” is missing. This book summarizes Wheildon’s scientific studies in 1982-1990 that provide conclusions indicating that serif fonts are preferable for readability in body text. Wheildon discusses “eye tiredness,” backtracking, difficulty focusing, and other issues.
Thanks for your comment, glad you found it useful – Although you are mistaken about Wheildon’s book – I did include it in the review.
Alex, you are right that O. Lund’s thesis does not address the data in the studies he reviewed. And therein lies my problem with his (and thereby your) dismissal of Wheldon’s data.
Lund’s attack on Wheildon’s data is ad homimum. Lund damns Wheildon for two reasons: the first is that Wheildon suggests irradiation as a theory to explain his results. But Wheildon makes clear that the results are statistically valid, and don’t depend on whether or not the theory holds water. The second reason is Lund is offended by the enthusiasm of those who recommend Wheildon’s results. Neither of these reasons have anything to do with Wheildon’s data.
As a practitioner of the mundane craft of writing fund raising letters, I care about the influence of typography on comprehension, which is what Wheildon studied. His data is more convincing to this (scientifically trained) copywriter than Lund’s book report disguised as a PhD thesis.
Thanks for you comment Gary, I’ve posted a detailed reply in this post: http://alexpoole.info/blog/the-problem-with-colin-wheildons-legibility-research.
Looks like you changed the title of that article, and it can now be found at
Great work, btw. You’re handling the off-target comments well.
Thanks! Although no one has sent me the definitive version of that research – perhaps they have something to hide 😉
If (in your opinion – and may I say well researched) there is little supporting evidence that sans serif fonts are more legible then why not use a serif font on this page to help reinforce your argument?
That would be irrelevant though – look at the conclusion again and you’ll remember why 😉
It seems like you have a personal preference for sans serif fonts. I would have enjoyed this more had you been as skeptical of the claims that sans serif is superior as you had been of the serif claims.
What gives you that idea? If you look again at the preamble, you’ll see that the motivation for this review was the personal preference of my boss for Arial over Times New Roman.
That preference is your bosses, not yours. Although you never come out say what your own preference was/is, I agree with blackbear that the page has a tinge of pro sans bias. Very interesting and useful though. Thanks.
Hi there, Please could you identify the specific areas of bias.
I think it seems that way only becuase serif fonts have a longer history of misinformation and research to debunk, so the amount of time on that may seem disproportionate. but i think your assertion seems to be that each font should be looked at individually in how it works with respect to all aspects (x-height, counter size, letter spacing and stroke width) and its use and personal aesthetics, more than serif or sans serif. thanks for the article.
The perception of bias based on the author’s choice of font is almost inescapable. I was once checking on the desirability/usability of aspx vs. php, there were plenty of sites arguing for aspx, all of which used aspx. The php community practically did not bother to defend itself. I got the impression they didn’t think there was a fight.
Well, using a serif font would just be bias towards the other camp. So there’s just no pleasing you, is there?
Alex: I enjoyed your paper, but I was also left with the impression that you spent more time debunking arguments in favor of serif fonts than in arguments in favor of sans serif. I don’t know how I got that impression, I’m just letting you know. One thing that would help me is if you, or someone, gathered some subjective opinions from professional editors and publishers. Some high quality publications, like Vogue, the New York Times and the New Yorker, use serif fonts in their articles. How did they make that choice? (Regarding subjective opinions, my advisor once told me this quip: What’s the plural of anecdote? Data.)
Hi Max, You’re right – there 6 arguments on serifs and 4 on sans-serif. These were simply all the arguments I could find on the matter. It bothered me at the time but I suppose that serifs have been around longer so they have accumulated more arguments. If you have heard of any more on sans-serif, I’d be interested in knowing.
Most disability advocates who specialize in accessibility agree that sans serif fonts are superior for persons with visual disabilities, and therefore should be primarily used. I don’t have a specific source offhand to provide, but as someone who has worked in the field of disability accessibility for 10 years now, I know this to be true. I’ll try to find a source or reference for you …
Although I forgot for a moment that you yourself are a student of accessibility as well … 🙂
Thanks for your comment Jargogle,
A practitioner rather than a student 😉 Although when I wrote this back in 2002, I was still a student…
I’d be very interested in seeing that source reference.
As a person with a visual impairment and who uses screen magnification software, I find sans serif easier to read online. Whenever possible, I change serif to sans. For me, the serifs contribute to “blurring” between the letters. Sans gives me crisp, more readable text. Just a personal data point.
According to Lighthouse International, “There is some evidence that sans-serif fonts are more legible when character size is small relative to the reader’s visual acuity.”
There is no source cited.
Thanks Angela, That’s interesting – can anyone else locate the original source?
Thank you for this research-supported article. I’ve read online that people with dyslexia find sans serif fonts easier to read than serif fonts. Do you know of any research that supports this?
You’re welcome Zoe. It would surprise me if that was true, and I’ve not seen any research claiming that.
Does anyone else know of any evidence supporting the idea?
This isn’t research, but it’s one of many, many articles that say that sans serif type is easier for people with dyslexia: http://www.dyslexic.com/fonts. I suppose I could email them and ask for their source… Perhaps it’s anecdotal/qualitative, not quantitative research.
I have only got anecdotal evidence but when I was working as an adult literacy tutor back in the late 1980s I had come to understand that readability was enhanced by using proper case, ensuring adequate white space and using a serifed font. Consequently whenever I was doing any writing that I wanted people to read and comprehend I endeavoured to put those things into practice.
Around 1992 a friend presented me with a book by a political commentator and wanted me to read it because he found it so enlightening. As I started to read it I found that I was constantly having to reread paragraphs and I quickly became tired while reading and just had to put the book down often. I noticed that unlike most books that I had read, this one was printed in a sans serif font. I wondered if it was hindering my ability to comprehend it.
With this in mind I chose to scan the entire book into my computer and with the aid of optical text recognition I converted it to Times New Roman. I then printed it out and completed reading the book with less effort than I’d been putting into it beforehand.
Now I realise that this is somewhat subjective but I am quite happy to continue using a serifed font whenever I want to write more than a sentence and I’m aiming for people to understand it easily. I would write this in a serifed font if I could 😉 (I suspect the code won’t work here but I’ll try)
I was right, the html that I tried to embed was stripped out. Moderator – any chance you can put a serif into my contribution?
On the occasions when I find a book that is difficult to read the likely culprits are usually far blunter than “serif vs sans serif”. Decorative fonts are seldom useful for long blocks of text. More common, line lengths are far too long. Consider, too, that the eye starts to lose its place on a line of normal leading once there are more than 60-odd characters.
But, I provide specifics for amusement–the ways in which you can make text harder to read by bad typography (or bad type) are innumerable. I am not surprised to read that, all other things being equal, minor changes such as the difference between equally appropriate serif fonts and sizes vs sans-serif fonts and sizes have little effect.
As someone who has done editing and translating on computer in two or three languages for a living since the early eighties, with thousands of hours’ experience, I can tell you that, when doing a fine edit on a text, looking for minor mistakes, sanserif (especially abominations like Ariel) are sheer hell on the eyes. To help the reader of the final text, I’ve often had to resort to the “expand” option under the character-spacing tab under FORMAT – FONT] to stretch text slightly in order to make successive els, i’s, ems, ens, v’s and w’s legible. And serif faces are simply more elegant. There’s a good reason for the fine print in dodgy contracts to be printed in 6pt sanserif narrow. Serifs should be written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Hi Sam, thanks for taking the time to comment. I don’t particularly like Arial either – at the default setting in web browsers it seems a bit too condensed for my eyes, and the fact that the lower case ‘l’ looks identical to the upper case ‘I’. However, my issues with it and the ones you mentioned are to do with features like font size, letter spacing, counter size, x-height, descenders, ascenders, arm, and stroke width. When you control for all these factors, serifs or the lack of them make no difference to legibility. Since we know that, we are free to prefer serif or sans serif typefaces on their aesthetic appeal 🙂
I would say that simplifying the debate to serif vs sans serif is somewhat of a false dichotomy; like you say, the combination of all the different typographic properties, including x-height, letter spacing, stroke width, etc. would also, in combination, play important roles. This lends itself to interesting pursuant research that looks into those factors. One interesting application is in the field of computer science, in the area of machine learning. If you know the infamous IBM Watson machine that played on Jeopardy, it was given a routine to be able to recognize patterns. One of the documentaries I saw showed us how they fed Watson a bunch of letter A’s in different types (everything from serif and sans serif to cursive, display, and anything the programmers themselves recognized as the letter A). Watson can then construct a fuzzy notion of A, and then when presented any image of a letter in whatever font, it would be able to calculate the probability that the image is the letter A. This hints as to how our own brains work in recognizing letters and words, and I’d be very interested in knowing if preference and/or ability to read to certain types is due to exposure over one’s life.
As a long-time typrographer, designer, writer, editor, and reader, I have to wholeheartedly agree with Sam about Arial (and many other sans serif fonts) being murder on the eyes in larger blocks of text.
The other facet that you did not discuss at all is the issue of leading (line spacing) and paragraph spacing. I find that many self-published works these days use enhanced leading or paragraph spacing to try to make the work longer or add a sense of space that the author must think is needed. This inappropriate use of extra spacing just makes the work even harder on the eye. I think what is most needed by the human eye (and your review seems to support this) is consistency in application and spacing.
My graduate students in Research Methods did a study based upon my paper on serif vs. sans serif faces. Interested in the paper? Email me.
What about what David Ogilvy said in his OGILVY ON ADVERTISING, and elsewhere?
What did he say – can you quote something here?
This is fascinating. I had read somewhere a while ago that sans serif fonts were better (i.e. more legible) for titles and serif fonts were better for body text. Have you some across any study indicating this to be the case?
Hi Patrick, Glad you found it interesting. I’m aware of that notion but there’s no evidence to support it – I think it must be a stylistic convention.
A couple comments beginning with the type face for the 42 line Gutenberg Bible. It follows the style and design of the current hand lettering of the monks. In the late 18th century Ben Franklin voiced his opinion that to eliminate the use of the long s in text work would be disastrous. Shortly afterward as type began to be cast in this country, the long s disappeared.
I have read several “studies” attempting to determine serif vs. san-serif. as you conclude – nothing is conclusive.
If I may be so bold – the reason is it is not scientific, it is personal preference – stylistic. It is what people are used to. Gutenberg was providing what people were used to. Ben was stating what people were used to. I print a reprint of John Dunlap’s Declaration of Independence. When people try to read the text with the long s, they are confused. It all depends on what we get used to.
Back in the 1980’s a couple salesmen from Germany convinced all the graphic designers of the day that everyone wanted Helvetica. Was it better? Of course not. It was just something new and the designers had to follow like sheep.
William Caxton went to France and printed the first book in English. What did he choose as a type to impress the king? It was a serif face because that was the style of the day.
There is no definitive answer. It depends on personal choice. Whether it be the boss who wants Ariel or a history buff like me who prefers Caslon.
Just my two cents worth.
prints by AJ
Excellent material. As a long-time fan of serif fonts, I found it very interesting that justification has been based on inaccurate (at worst) or anecdotal (at best) evidence. However, I always fall back on one concern. The vast majority of sans serif fonts make it impossible to tell the difference between the Roman numeral III and Ill (with a capital “I”). Since I work in the health field, it comes up over and over. If someone can point me in the direction of a sans serif font that has an easily discernible difference between a capital “I” and a lowercase “l,” I’ll gladly consider switching!
Thanks Jeff. Arial is annoying for that but Verdana is fine, the typeface used on this site. See my comment above (search for ‘arm’).
Well, yes, but . . . First of all, Verdana seems like “cheating.” That is, it seems like it adds arms to the capital “I” and the digit “1” solely to deal with this issue; it’s not a true sans serif font (unless you want to quibble about whether arms are not the same thing as serifs). But my biggest problem is that my main client insists on using only Arial or TNR. Those are my choices. I’d love to use something like Optima or Calibri or Gils Sans, but given the choice between Arial and TNR, I’m coming down on the side of a serif font every time I can!
Thanks again for the excellent research. In future jobs, I might have to rethink my bias!
The site typeface was changed from Verdana to Arial.
Thanks Alex for the informative article. While I agree that font choice is largely a subjective choice, I really appreciate the well documented pro/con discussion as well as the lively debate in the comments. If more people would put as much care (and study) into their font choices as they do colors, social icons, and ad placement, the blogosphere might be much more readable.
Nice article. I like all the discussion you have stirred up. It would be valuable to show examples. How about contrasting two paragraphs or columns of type. Say Verdana Vs. Times Roman. Or be Bold and use some serif type on this page. Maybe for comments.
thanks for your thorough search for evidence of differences in legibility between type faces with and without serifs.
In the 1960ies, I myself ran an experimental study comparing Bodoni (with serifs) to Futura (sans serifs), each in 8 versions of boldness and slant, by means of a German adaptation of the Tinker Speed of Reading Test, with more than 1700 Subjects. In total, Futura was read about 1% faster than Bodoni, but there were some interactions. Unfortunately, the results were never published in English so you could not find it in your search. Publications (in German) were:
Wendt, Dirk (1970): Zur Lesbarkeit von Druckschriften (On the legibility of print), Umschau in Wissenschaft und Technik 70 (13), p 417-418,
and in more detail:
Wendt, Dirk (2000): Lesbarkeit von Druckschriften. In: Gorbach, R. P. (ed.): Lesen Erkennen. Ein Symposium der Typographischen Gesellschaft München. München: Typographische Gesellschaft München, pp 9-63.
It would not be necessary to read and understand the German text, it is probably enough to see the results in the graphs.
In general, I believe that the best legible type for everybody is the one he or she is most experienced in.
Thank you very much for taking the time to write this comment – it’s a valuable addition to the discussion.
Publishing articles across languages can indeed be an issue, and I’m disappointed to find out that I missed yours! Thanks anyway for posting the refs here.
I think agree with your conclusion about legibility and experience with a typeface.
The language itself can make a difference. I find long blocks of English text in most sans serif fonts much harder to read than normal serif fonts. In German, I do not find as much of a difference. I’ve always supposed that capitalization of nouns was the cause: more variation in the line of text. (I’m not a type maven, just a reader.)
I suspect that much of the data collected throughout the years could also be easily categorized according to age of subject for at least two legitimate reasons. Legibility seems to be just like beauty – – in the eye of the beholder and perfectly subjective because it’s a personal preference. But there is also the subjective aspect in the physical comfort arena. When your eyes begin to age, physical changes make certain typesets more difficult to read. Clean sharp print reduces anxiety by being clearer, which is the whole point of the discussion.
The only pill bottles with serif instructions are antiques.
I’m 69 years old, somewhat far-sighted, and a little astigmatic, but I find serif fonts generally easier to read than sans serif – except at very small sizes where the serifs get too close together. I’ve wished many times for serif fonts on the information sheets that come with my (many) pill bottles.
Thanks for a thoughtful article. I personally find that typography is an art form, and that both serif and sans serif fonts can be poorly set or well set.
A font like Helvetica in the hands of a good typographer can, not only be eminently legible, but can be quite beautiful. By the same token serif fonts may also be beautifully set. One of my favorite serif fonts is Zapf Elliptical, which in good hands, can also be a delight to the eye.
With the advent of computer-based printing, everyone fancies themselves an expert. Unfortunately just selecting fonts and their sizes is not typography. Letterspacing (kerning) and leading can change the whole look and feel of a block of text.
A new magazine called CODEX (especially for typomaniacs) may be found at http://codexmag.com and some very interesting work on typography can be found at http://ilovetypography.com.
Alex, you deserve some *serious* commendation.
Designers, clients, users the world over have needed someone to look seriously and carefully at the research around this issue, and that’s exactly what you’ve done. Must have taken you a while but I hope you can take pleasure from the knowledge that you’ve saved your community thousands of hours of arguments.
If only there were more folks like you who recognised the importance of research and critical analysis. Thank you for taking our field forward and for sharing your findings with us.
Thanks Jessica, you’ve made my day!
Thanks for this Alex. I had read that serif typefaces were less ‘tiring’ to read over a long period and had used them accordingly. I’m pleased to have been re-educated in this area and also refreshed by your thorough and unbiased evaluation of the available evidence. If only more research was like this!
Thanks Pat, glad you found it useful.
Excellent, very well done and thank you. You have saved me a lot of time.
Not much to add beyond the last couple of comments, but I just wanted to say that it was a pleasure to read such a well researched article taking apart the flimsy “facts” of this field.
I appreciate your detailed research. It’s been tough for an old editor like me to let go of the “common wisdom” I worked with for so many years. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help me at all in trying to make my font selections — aside from assuring me that as far as serif vs. sans serif, I really can’t make a mistake.
HELP !! – I am an experienced writer who – by default – is primarily responsible for the content of our website and after having read your article my uncertainty about which font to use has ripened into total confusion. BTW – (before the web) when I wrote something, I never gave much thought to the multitude of variables to be pondered. That was the printers job. Ignorance was truly bliss. Now my very little knowledge is a very frightening and dangerous thing. My preference is for times or times new roman – perhaps because they are familiar – Please tell me it is OK or if not what to use. Thank you for your scholarship and anticipated soothing reply.
From an aesthetic point of view I wouldn’t use Times/Times New Roman as it will make your site look like something from the 1990s. If you like serifs, then try Georgia which has some nice generous letter forms. Otherwise in terms of sans serif – Verdana or Tahoma is good for body text and you could also try Arial for headings.
Thanks, Alex, for doing this research – even though it contradicts what I’d read before and thus thought I knew.
As indicated in two comments above, I’m usually much more comfortable and efficient reading serif fonts. As you suggest, however, there’s more to it than just serifs or not. Thicks and thins make a difference to me, for example.
I just took Allen Gillman’s comment and looked at it in a dozen different fonts. I found serif better overall, but it was not that simple. Some sans serif fonts read better than some serif fonts. Maybe what’s needed is for everyone to be able to choose the font to read in.
Great article. Thanks for putting it together. The comments are also useful.
whatever will be, will be…
An alternative title or conclusion?
But seriously — a great article and discussion.
Great article. As an Helvetica Neue lover, I have to say that your conclusions made my day.
Yet, there is a question : all these theories are based on ‘old’ papers, the newer is 2006 ? What about new technologies, new screens, and high pixel density ? What about the iPhone 4 retina display for example ?
I think that a lot of experiment deserve to be re-experimented with new technology, don’t you ?
Bonne journée !
Glad you liked it 🙂
Most of the studies I reviewed were done on paper, which has a far better resolution than even the most modern displays, so I wouldn’t expect to see any new or different results emerge if an experiment was repeated. However, since science is fun, why not do it and see!
thank u to clear about serif and sans serif problems
The main differences between serif and sans serif fonts are more of expressive character, or personality than legibility in my opinion. Good legibility after all is a property that arises after a complex combination of many factors, most of them contextual to the act of reading itself. But even the intrinsic expressive qualities of a specific typeface metamorphose a lot depending on the context and relation with surrounding elements. Certainly serif types being closer in evolution to what was originally a hand crafted gesture, tend to conserve more of that manual touch than for instance, Futura. The rhythm they create might add positively in some cases but not in others. I haven’t gone into details with those studies, but to get reliable results for something that involves so many many variables seems to me an impossible task. I mean, the question of whether serif or sans serif fonts are more legible seems like the wrong question to begin with.
When I started working in the advertising business in the mid 70s there was quite a fashion amongst a.ds and typographers for headlines in sans and body in serif, and quite an art to finding combinations. I must admit a preference for serif faces for body or any long
text, and I speak as someone who has read far more thousands of words than the average. Serif faces do seem to hold their place for longer periods in the fashion which flips between one and the other. Sans serif faces seem to be ‘discovered’ by designers every few years and embraced by a public which really does nbot notice type. Personally I find Verdana an ugly and characterless face (compared for instance with something like Gill Sans). Incidentally, I read ariel on your site as ‘anal’. Strange or what! Am I being?
Your article gave me inspiration (in french): http://www.protextuel.com/police-ecriture-web-internet
I conclude with this question: if (as you mention citing Boyarski et al., 1998 , Bernard et al., 2000-2001 , Tullis et al., 1995 , Reynolds, 1979) “computer users prefer sans serif typefaces for body text online”, thus wouldn’t it be advised to use that type…?
Thanks for your review article – I was going to translate mine into French but you’ve summed it up nicely so I think I’ll just link to yours.
In reply to your question, I would advocate using sans serif typefaces if that is what your audience prefers on aesthetic grounds – but as I mentioned above… “in almost all legibility studies, reader preference or perceived legibility tends to be inconsistent with user performance”.
Thanks a lot for the link Alex, it’s an honor!
We are having this debate at work now. I was taught at a technical writers course in the early 90’s that san serif was preferred in technical publications (see US and Australian military technical military publications).
Interestingly, My daughter, a graphic designer was taught the opposite (that was in 2005 ish). We have argued this point when I sought her advice on a style guide.
I see from your excellent work it probably doesn’t matter that much. Love your work and thanks for sharing
I like both and for interest would change fonts when needed. I would not be fixated in just one type of font. LOL
In view of all this, why is it that virtually all newspapers, novels, textbooks, serious journals, thesis requirements by universities require or use serif fonts. Note the word, virtually. I admit there are sometimes exceptions, but the generality is still true. Further, some popular magazines that have been sans for a time and are now going to serif.
It is surely stretching a point to suggest that they have not considered the readability of their material.
I am referring here to printed material only.
Many thanks your good review. It helps me to make my decision and choose a sans serif font like univers 45 light.
Sometimes it is useful to make some distance within the fonts. I’m writing about philosophy texts of the 19th century and i need this distance not only in the writing style but also in the font selection. Especially if one uses new methods.
Like you suggested there are many aesthetic but also content-related criterias to choose a serif or non-serif font.
I found your really interesting piece while looking for evidence underpinning some received wisdom in the world of direct marketing: that charity appeals using a serif font are more successful than the same appeals if they use a sans serif font.
Having read your research I realise that if true, the reasons could be more to do with familiarity and subconscious associations than with the relative technical readability of the font.
We may be forced to test this if we can’t find convincing source evidence, but I found your research very thought-provoking and valuable.
Typefaces seems to belong to their time; a designer can ‘place’ a set in any decade in the first half of the 20th Century simply by using signage in appropriate font(s).
I believe familiarity, and the impression to be made on the reader, to be the keys.
At one time, the decorated scripts used in handwriting may have been far easier to read than we find today, else copperplate and its ilk would have been merely tiresome (rather than impressive), and who could have tolerated hand-written german? Old scripts require practice, and some require specialists, to read simply because we’re no longer familiar with them.
Serif fonts (such as TR) ape the text inscribed on monuments from an earlier age. Their function is to imply gravitas and worth.
But for half a century or more we’ve been surrounded by sans-serif fonts, specifically Helvetica and all its cousins, especially in signage. Their function is to imply clarity and modernism.
There’s some merit to the tools arguement too. My handwriting is essentially italic, learned with a fountain pen, and to you probably scratchy and difficult to read. If you’re ten years younger than I am, your handwriting, learned with a crayon, probably looks more like comic sans-serif, and to me faintly juvenile.
Applying a similar progression to the tools we use for writing, we go from Times Roman (what we want) to Courier (what we can do with a type-writer) to IBM Golf-Ball (Choices! All those bl.stupid double-spaces can vanish along with mono-spacing! Let’s be modern and use sans-serif!) to the Arial or Verdana we use today. OK, I’ve missed several stop-offs, such as those machine-readable typefaces, along the way, but you get it: The font conveys the idea; the readability comes (as much as anything) from familiarity with the tools and their product.
So it should be no surprise the comparative research on fonts should be at best inconclusive or deliver in shades of grey.
You may like to try to dig out some work the UK’s Ministry of Transport did on Motorway (Freeway) signage not long after WWII. We ended up with Helvetiva, albeit at a slighly larger size than many of our European cousins, in white on dark-green or blue, or black on white. Why? Legibility from a distance and optimal contrast, as I recall. So I bought into the notion that sans-serif worked best on screens because they were effectively read at arm’s-length, rather than up close in the manner of a good book.
I think much of this discussion derives from the fact that we are talking about legibility and readability in different circumstances. If we ask someone to read a road sign the circumstances and conditions are obviously wildy different from those when we are relaxing and reading a novel in circumstances we have adapted for the most comfortable reading. Different criteria would, I assume, apply if reading the letters on the casing of a bomb being defused. I suspect that the facility at reading of the individual reader will also play a part in the suitability of typeface because of various reading styles. Personally I object to those at university level specifying Verdana as the only permitted typeface because they read somewhere (probably on a Microsoft hand-out) that it the most legible of all. Along with Ariel it must be the blandest, dullest of them all!
As an (obscure) author and small publisher,
I once wrote a short parable for an adult audience in the guise of a children’s story. I printed it in Bradley Hand ITC script as a handout for review.
The response was overwhelmingly positive and very emotional. However, when I asked these same reviewers about the font used to convey the story, their reaction ranged from tepid to negative. (About the same as the Bradley font reviews I’ve read online)
So I published the story in a more “suitable” book font (Garamond). Although the book won an award for interior design by literary critics, the story itself never received the accolades first experienced with those five simple pages scrawled in Bradley Hand.
It reminds me of a study of viewer acceptance of Calibri and Cambria when those fonts first replaced the web standards of Times Roman and Arial. Reportedly, viewers were negative toward Cambria, and yet Cambria was the “stickiest”, holding viewers the longest, compared to all other serif fonts presented.
I don’t know how to interpret all of this. I now plan to publish my short story online, but I’m at wit’s end trying to decide which font to publish it in. I think I’ll stay glued to this forum for awhile.
Thanks for your insights
Excellent work. When I was new to the marketing and advertising B2B world in the 70’s & 80’s, I recall reading an Adweek article that reported research that claimed increased readability, meaning comprehension, and reader attentiveness for serif vs. non-serif fonts. I didn’t delve into the matter any further at the time, but have often used serif fonts based on that now ancient article.
I am relieved to learn that using sans serif does not detract, and in fact, may enhance legibility and readability. Thank you!
I did my grad work at Iowa State and read pretty much the same sources (MA in ’96 or so). But, it strikes me that back lit monitors, increased resolution, & real WYSIWYG are a major component of readability studies for online fonts. Most major studies you quoted and I have read are pre-Sun/Apple/Mac workstations and certainly pre-Windows. The few that I have read since then seem to be marketing driven and show that fonts can be used counter-intuitively to great effect. I would love to see a study on the scale of Tinker that is online only and takes into consideration the monitors (or phones/tablets/etc.) as the medium for reading.
Thanks for this column. Its nice to see someone passionate for typography and design.
Fascinating Alex – a great piece of research, and good to see you to debunk some of the pseudoscience out there. Well balanced also.
The use of the serif – in lower case type especially – is a relic from broad nibbed pen techniques. I don’t know of any mediaeval bookhands that didn’t use serifs. The first type faces copied the bookhands of their day, and then in their own turn evolved to cater for the printing technology of successive eras. It’s amazing in some ways the serif survived for as long as it did.
Even though I have a 1680×1050 monitor in front of me now, in standard 11pt type, a serif type face has an x height of 7 or 8 pixels, and the serifs are blobby and indistinct; a printed letter of the same size would be much crisper, so I am sure that even with current higher resolution screens, sans serif has the edge. On paper – well I still appreciate a well set and printed book in serifs.
Overall though – I am pretty sure that familiarity with any script is the greatest aid to legibility!
Regarding type size and legibilty, it should be noted that in the peak period of hot-metal comosition, typefaces were cut from different masters at different size ranges; very small text sizes had larger counters and x-height, display sizes would have relatively thinned strokes and refined serifs. And faces were actually tested in print to determine if counters would fill or serifs or hairlines weaken, and what the ink-gain would be on different stocks. Book faces, news faces, ad faces, all had different criteria for suitabilty.
In digital typography, there are very few faces that size ranges. The Adobe Multiple Master size axis was a nice try, but in hot-metal, Linotype and Monotype made a greater effort, whether or not the end user noticed.
Speaking as a letterpress printer who prefers seriffed types on paper, I’d still rather see sans-serif on the web, for legibilty in that context. A print publisher can control its own variables for the best product, but a web publisher has no control over the hardware and software of the user. New LCD? Old CRT? You can’t know.
For those of us who find it very difficult to read large blocks of sans serif text, it would be interesting to know whether we all found it difficult to learn to read in the first place. I now read at high speed, but, whilst never labelled “dyslexic” I was very slow to learn to read and write. I think I may have never really learned to process words in the “assembly of letters” form – I suspect I recognise the words themselves, which is why sans-serifs (even ClearType) give me a headache as I see letters rather than a word. On paper, I also can instantly spot spelling mistakes, and muddled capitalisation, which others miss – again, I suspect, because my brain says “that looks wrong”, whereas others skip-read the letters and get what they expect to see. Interestingly, it isn’t the same on screen – I don’t spot mistakes ’til printed, and I also find it much more tiring to read anything on my (expensive LCD) monitor than on paper or a Kindle.
Poole write off Wheildon’s work on the authority of Lund. I have just looked up Lund’s PhD dissertation: Lund’s criticisms do not address the real issue. Lund appropriately criticises Wheildon for some hyperbole. Then inappropriately never addresses the actual experiments performed by Whieldon. I suspect that Lund did not have the expertise in Statistical Design necessary to critique the core part of Wheildon’s work. Wheildon’s experiments on comprehension are the soundest I have yet seen in the field.
Amusingly, to me it appears that Lund uses similar rhetoric techniques that he criticises in Wheildon’s document.
Thanks for you comment Tony, I’ve posted a detailed reply in this post: http://alexpoole.info/the-problem-with-colin-wheildons-legibility-research.
Thnx for that great article which i’ve found from Susan Weinschenk’s book!
Great informative article. Previously I have been a supporter of the Sans Serif fonts. However, after various tests I have found that Serif fonts contributes to a smoother and more efficient reading of text. From a logical perspective, you might argue that serifs contributes to a more spacious and variation richer reading experience.
Thanks for your very interesting research and also thanks to all for the comments and replies.
Excellent article, Alex – saw it via links from http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/wiki/Easy_to_Read. May I add a more recent paper to your references stack – using eye-tracking to investigate legibility (see
I’ve seen that sans serif fonts are better for electronic devices. If the text is very small with long lines, serif might be better.
With electronic devices, the “body” of the font is often more “bulky” with sans serif, i.e. easy to see while with serif fonts are often thin in the body to fit the serifs for the same font size.
I pick sans serif for electronic devices (Kindle, phones) and serif for books. This might change in the future when screen resolutions increase, of course.
I was just on the phone with one of my clients “which is better” and “I can’t remember which is which”…
You answered all my questions with enough detail to satisfy any Scholar out there!
Thanks so Much,
Thanks Lynne, glad to be of service!
I have a print disability and sans serif is a more accessible for me. It’s not preference and when I create alternate format for students I use sans serif. The little extra strokes are just extra. I enjoyed the break down on font features. This is something I need to spend more time working with to improve readability in the alternate format I develop.
very interesting; it’s refreshing to see a solid analysis of usually uncritically accepted studies. my own anecdotal evidence from several decades of being a voracious reader of print on paper as well as on screen, is that i vastly prefer certain well-designed sans serif faces, though it matters more to me on screen. FWIW i also prefer light type on dark background on screen (but not pure white on black); it makes my eyes tire a lot less when i spend 12 hours staring at a monitor. i am myopic and have astigmatism, not always corrected as much as might be needed, which might have something to do with both preferences. aesthetically i am agnostic; i love some serif typefaces just as much as some sans serifs, and i am happy typeface designers continue to give us new ones.
it’s therefore always seemed strange to me, this insistence that serifs are definitely more legible/readable. i think you’re right; acculturation is a strong motivator, and actually individual aspects of typeface design are of more importance than serif or not. for the website i am currently building i am preparing alternate style sheets for people like me versus what the majority seems to prefer; fortunately this is very easily done on the web.
have you come across any research on text justification? i really wish nobody did it ever on screen, and fewer people on paper; it can interfere with rapid word recognition for me.
Applying vision science to normal typography is recent and has copped a lot of flack with the Tiresias fonts. I don’t use Tiresias, I use DejaVu Sans Mono.
The Snellen chart fonts were designed around one minute of arc for both stroke width and space. Computer science has also been used in the design of OCR fonts some of which are more human readable than popular non-OCR fonts.
Sans Serif is required by law in Australia for accessibility. For example it is required for public signs and warnings. The Law is behind science and not aesthetics.
In Law you must use mm and not points which are proprietary of Adobe software and other point sizes vary. For example a minimum text height of 5 mm is often required for warning labels.
Most interesting, although the points about much of the research having been done before the modern hi-rez-monitor era are noted and should be pursued, ideally anyway, I guess.
I am surprised that among so many heated type mavens here no one has mentioned arial (pls note spelling) narrow, nor optima/optane (palatino w/out serifs). I have used them as a tech writer/editor going back 40+ years, and nobody has complained, to the contrary, paper, online, large/small. Clean and simple go a long way. I hasten to add, though, that I am scrupulous about Word and other kerning / WP justification / light condensation / light hyphenation settings, also lowercasing needless initial caps. Anything to help the busy reader!
Thanks for the splendid article and the interesting comments. I have the impression, consistently with some previous comments regarding impaired vision, that sans-serif is more readable at the limit of resolution. I therefore recommend sans-serif fonts for slide and poster presentations, in case people in the back of the room have trouble deciphering the text. Am I wrong?
This came out today which might answer your question: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/web-typography.html
Doesn’t quite. The question is not which fonts can be read most easily when the text is clearly resolved but rather which are easiest to decipher at the limit of resolution (as on an eye chart). I smell an undergraduate project.
I can’t say I’ve read every entry here, but this rather unequivocal comment about fonts and accessibility – “Most disability advocates who specialize in accessibility agree that sans serif fonts are superior for persons with visual disabilities” – simply isn’t supported by organizations such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the UK or the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
The RNIB says “Research has been equally inconclusive about the benefits of serif or sans-serif fonts, with an almost equal number of reports recommending each. We therefore currently suggest that you can use either type of font, as long as the typeface is clear and the characters are distinct.” and the CNIB says “Standard serif and sans serif fonts (such as Arial or Times Roman) are generally considered to be the best fonts for legibility.” (both quotes easily accessible on their respective websites.)
Apparently I have been running on a myth throughout my design career: that the caps on the end of serif letters help readers flow through dense text heavy documents (on paper). Why else were most novels and news and magazines body copy in serif?
Oh well, I still personally prefer them-serifs (in print). On computers (and now phones and tablets…) sans-serif body copy is still king and should continue to be because of current screen resolution/ and serif is only reserved for styled larger heads and sub heads. The rectangular grid of pixels deny any further detail at the ends of letter forms, hence sans serif ARE easier to read on the screen. Sans serif is to my mind, Vanilla. Arial is ice-milk, without much flavor at all… Verdana is a good vanilla (not great, but serviceable) and Trebuche’ is much more of a vanilla with the bean (vanilla with a little flare).
However, with the advent of higher resolution screens (we have been using 72 pixel per inch screens for 30 years now) the new retina screens by apple, are closing in on the 300 pixel per inch target. Reading serifs type on a new ipad retina display is a pleasure… compared to former struggle with vague fuzzies at the ends of letters. It makes me wonder what will be in store for us as high-resolution becomes the norm. For history’s sake, in 1985 when the 300 dot per inch barrier was broken with a laser printer from Canon driven by Postscript from Adobe, and generated from a low rez 72 pixel per inch Macintosh monitor… it ushered in a whole revolutionary desk-top-print publishing era of type interest, use and experimentation by everyone.
Will the expressiveness of serifs (aside from the dreadfully cramped TimesNew Roman) make a comeback? At least we won’t be laboring under the illusion that they are any easier or faster or better to read through them, than sans-serif, once retina resolution becomes popular.
The explanation for sans serif being in wider use in recent years may be quite simple. In Microsoft Word, sans serif Ariel is at the top of type faces available because of its being at the top in alphabetical order. So, most people use it not because of conscious preference but simply due to laziness in selecting a serif type face.
It will be interesting to find the relationship between the popularity of Microsoft Word and the increasing use of Ariel.
Some things are not that complicated!
There’s some recently designed font for people with dyslexia. It’s sans-serif and people seem to read it better according to the designer (who is dyslectic too). See his website: http://www.studiostudio.nl/project-dyslexie/
Interesting that Amazon’s Kindle uses Times New Roman as the default font. I find it annoyingly bland.
Google came up with this blog when I was searching for a good font to use with children with additional support needs. Many colleagues believe that MS Comic Sans is the one to use because it doesn’t have the terminal on the lower case ‘a’, however I’m not too fond of it and was looking for an alternative and/or evidence that this was the case.
Also at a lecture on fonts and education we were told that serif fonts were better for mature readers as the serifs somehow bring the letters together as a word and that san serif fonts were better for early readers…
As a computer network administrator I have been searching for the best font to distingush between the capital letter “I” (eye), the lower case letter “l” (ehl), and the number “1” (one) especially as it concerns issuing/receiving first time/initial use passwords that may need to have password complexities applied and may contain only one or select few of these characters. If a password was “1Illpassword” you may not realize that “Ill” is capital eye, lower ehl, lower ehl. In other fonts you may not know that “passwordl” was password-(ehl) and mistake it for a 1 (one).
Some password fields don’t allow you to copy and paste into it so I may have to copy-paste to a word processor and roll through a few fonts to know what a particular character is so I can key it properly.
Do you have any suggestions for a font that best distinguishes between them?
Arial has this problem, as I mentioned in this comment above. Why not try Verdana, Trebuchet, or Georgia?
Alex – I skimmed most of the comments so I’m not sure if you answered this already, but I have some questions:
1) Which font is this Web site, this story, and all the subsequent comments written in and why did you choose it?
2) Doesn’t it stand to reason that reading an entire body of text in a single font is easier on the brain/eyes? For instance, if each of these comments were in a different font, I’m sure it would have taken me a bit longer to read through them all.
Anyway, thanks for the article. I’m trying to advise a client right now on a press release and they’d like to use Eras Light Italics for the body of the text. I find it to be hard on the eyes to read more than the headline. I believe the press will feel the same, and the goal is to try and get them to read as much as possible. Can you offer any advice?
1. This is the font info from the style-sheet I’m using : “Helvetica Neue”,Arial,Helvetica,”Nimbus Sans L”, sans serif; If you’re using a Mac then you’ll be seeing Helvetica, if you’re using a PC you’ll be seeing Arial. Only reason I have these fonts active at the moment is because this WordPress theme is based on a standard WP theme – I simply didn’t customise the fonts due to lack of time. If I do customise them, I’d probably choose Verdana, Tahoma or Georgia, or maybe even Gill Sans MT which is the header font for my name.
2. Well, it’s what we’re used to at any rate – any large amounts of text set in a seemingly random variety of fonts will be an annoying read. Consistency, structure and elegance is what we crave in most typography – unless of course you’re designing a punk record cover…
Setting a whole page of text in italics is certainly unconventional – it’s more usual to use it sparingly and for emphasis – eg quoted text. Perhaps you could remind them that too much emphasis is no emphasis at all!
Great research to you and all your followers who offered comments. I am an educator about to self publish a book for high school students, parents and educators, and one of my final decisions is to choose which font type to use in the manuscript. Based on the comments that I have read, I have narrowed it down to 5, Veranda, Copperplate Gothic, Calibri, Georgia, and Tahoma. Do you have a personal preference on any of these, and why is it your preference?
You’re welcome – glad you found it useful!
They’re all good, readable mainstream fonts – there should be no technical reason to choose one over the other. However there are conventions – ie using serifs for body text, especially in fiction writing, or the frequent use of sans-serif in body text for technical writing. I find that going against these conventions can sometimes rub people up the wrong way.
Google: street signs, choose: images, advanced: photos
How many street signs do you see in serif?
There is a famous Occamic paraphrase: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The original claim for ‘guide-the-eye’, reasonably contemporaneous with the discovery of saccades, vs ‘flow’, is almost all the weight behind serif.
It’s not the job of someone involved in font-choice to weigh the number of serif vs sans arguments. There was no original reason to choose serif in the first place. One could simply construct an argument equally valid: make alternating colors dark brown and black for letters which will aid the eye in distinguishing them, or do it thi way.
Omit last phrase, html didn’t work as expected.
I prefer sans serif when reading large blocks of text. I don’t know if the simplicity causes less distraction or if it’s so commonly used now that I’m more familiar with it. For headlines and signage I’m partial to serif. I like the way it reads better in this context and it just seems more artful and romantic.
Text in a website registers in the logical, technical left side of our brains while images appeal more to the senses and emotions. So if you’re conveying straight information you would probably use more text. You might use more images if you want to show natural beauty to create a good feeling about a product or idea, or maybe tragic images to evoke sympathy for a cause.
Sam, I found your comments about the nightmare of editing text in sans serif very interesting and I will be forever cautious when signing a contract printed in sans serif narrow.
Thanks leonartdesign for the info about people with dyslexia possibly having an easier time reading sans serif. Since I am a bit dyslexic myself, I found that an interesting little tidbit of information.
This is a very interesting discussion and I will no longer be under the misapprehension that serif fonts are more legible or readable. I too felt the presentation was biased and after reading the comments, I have given it some thought as to why I felt that way. First is the font this is presented in. It would be cognitively dissonant to conclude that serif fonts were superior and present the facts to support such a conclusion in a sans serif font. You have mentioned, in response to a comment, that this is a factor beyond your control and that using either font would seem to imply a bias. Given that this is true, perhaps addressing this issue in the introduction to the article might have somewhat ameliorated this apparent bias. Another reason is the number of points against the ‘serif is best’ claim. The reasons you gave for that being so are valid but those too could have been mentioned when beginning your discussion, thereby undercutting the impression of bias. One more reason is that you chose to debunk the pro-serif claims first. First impressions are strongest and for many are the only ones as they may be interrupted before finishing. Because of the previously mentioned, built-in biases, moving the order of the discussion so that sans serif claims are addressed first is a way to begin to redress the imbalances.
I recognize that this over all topic is valuable and broader than my focus but I want to talk about the effect on children learning to write. Regardless of there being no solid evidence that sans vs serifs has a clear winner, there is still a problem with, at least some, sans serif fonts that it isn’t fully addressed here, that is the incomplete rendering of some letters. It has been mentioned that some letters, the lower case L and upper case i are indistinguishable in commonly used sans serif fonts and alternative fonts have been suggested, which is very helpful but what about the lower case Q? In teaching young children with sans serif fonts, I have seen that many learn that this letter is indistinguishable from the number 9 and write them identically. The other problem is when their tailless q ends up with a slight, unintentional tail but in the opposite direction and ends up being a g. The children copy what they see. I find it unreasonable that purveyors of children’s books teaching them how to write apparently give no thought to this particular problem. Are there some alternate fonts for the q issue as the fonts suggested for the l and I problem don’t do anything for this one? Sorry for the lengthy comment.
One thing that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves in this debate is the legibility of TWO-WEIGHT fonts. The font in this article (at least as it appears on my computer) is Helvetica — a great font for many purposes, but not optimally legible for body text. If it combined thick and thin strokes, my reading speed would increase significantly.
Another factor in legibility is X-HEIGHT. The x-height in Helvetica is too high, and makes it harder for the eye to recognize word shapes. Many words — esp. “the,” “and,” “if,” and other connectors — are seen so often that our eyes recognize them by shape alone. So it speeds up reading considerably if we can recognize word shapes easily. I believe, in fact, that one of the long-held arguments for serifs was that they facilitated word shape recognition? I tend to disbelieve this, but I do see a lower x-height as being useful in accomplishing that.
I’d love to be able to put the same text side by side right here in Helvetica and, say, Optima. It would be interesting to see what the general consensus would be. For now, here’s a sample of Optima:
I recognize that it has a very 70s look, but don’t you agree that it’s more legible than Helvetica? Of course, one of the problems with sans serifs is that so few of them employ two weights! I wonder why that is….
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