Re. (Sans?) Serif

Subject: Re. (Sans?) Serif
From: Geoff Hart <geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Mon, 10 Apr 1995 09:26:27 LCL

Karen Davis asked about the relative readability of sans serif vs.
serif type.

I've read (sorry, couldn't find the specific journal reference, but
I'll keep looking) that an opthalmologist/psychologist did the
research on this 10 or more years ago, and discovered fairly
conclusively that the serifs increase the visual differentiation
between characters and thus make serif type more readable; since
recognizing differences requires that there _be_ differences, the
conclusion seems to have been based on the idea that emphasizing
differences between character shapes makes them easier to recognize
and thus read. (To forestall the inevitable reply: No, this doesn't
mean that you should use Times for the letter T, Helvetica for the
letter e, Zapf chancery for the letter x and Zapf dingbats for the
period at the end of the sentence. You can only carry a conclusion so
far, and besides, there's also good anecdotal evidence that "ransom
note" typography is far less readable.)

This matches my own experience. I find sans serif generally hard to
read for any length of time, and I make far more proofreading errors
when I edit sans serif printouts. One compromise that seems to work
well is to use a sans serif font with variable stroke widths:
traditional serif fonts use almost perfectly constant stroke widths,
and thus seem more similar, whereas more modern forms such as Stone
Sans taper the stroke widths at the ends of strokes and in other
places. Yes, I do find these fonts far easier to read than strict
serif fonts, sometimes even as readable as serif fonts.

One final note: Some of the increased readability of serif fonts is a
learned skill. I have asked a few Europeans about their preference
(since many Scandinavian and other publications use exclusively sans
serif for body text) and they told me that they never noticed this
fact, and didn't actually find our serif publications dramatically
easier to read. Again, a learning effect? Bottom line: For a North
American audience, stick with serif for large amounts of text. For
Europeans, consider using sans serif... but test your choice on your
audience. If you have to be consistent between both versions, and
there's a strong sans serif lobby, aim for a modern sans serif such as
Stone Sans, which has the improved readability of serif and the "look
and feel" of sans.

--Geoff Hart geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
#8^{)} <---got these specs from reading too much online info!

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