SUMMARY: Readability studies on fonts--serif and sans serif

Subject: SUMMARY: Readability studies on fonts--serif and sans serif
From: "Scudder, Beth" <beth_scudder -at- retek -dot- com>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2000 09:06:40 -0600


I recently asked for help locating studies on font readability, specifically
focusing on serif vs. sans serif fonts, that I could reference in
determining what font to use for some Web publishing my department's doing.
I got responses from about eight people, which can be summarized as follows:

(1) The user's Web browser preferences will determine the type of font, so
don't worry about font types. Just tag it appropriately (heading, body,
etc.) and the browser will sort it out. Use PDFs or graphics to maintain
specific typefaces if that's necessary.

(2) Racial memory or urban legend or common wisdom seem to think that serif
fonts are better for readability in printed documentation, and sans serif
fonts are better for readability in on-line documentation. (There's a
preference that serif fonts be larger than sans serif, on-screen.)

(3) Learn a bit about typography, design, etc., and then make your decision.
Recommended reading included _Dynamics in Document Design_ by Karen A
Schriver (Wiley, 1997, ISBN 0471-30636-3), _The Elements of Typographic
Design_ by Robert Bingham or Bringhurst, _The Non-Designer's Web Book_ by
Robin Williams, and _The Non-Designer's Design Book_ by Robin Williams.

(4) Typography is an art and requires special training. Add a typographer to
your documentation team.

(4) Consider whether you want the reader to be able to read more quickly, or
if you want to slow him or her down.

(5) Serif vs sans serif is only one of a myriad number of traits a font can
have and which can impact readability. Other traits include: font style,
font size, and compressed vs. not.

(6) Is readability really what you want, or legibility? Various definitions
of readability and legibility followed:
a. Readability refers to how easy it is to read a lot of text, and
that serif fonts are more readable for print and lengthy web pages;
legibility refers to how easy it is to recognize short bursts of text, such
as headlines, signs, buttons, etc, and says that in print and on screen,
sans serif fonts are more legible.
b. Readability is more about comprehension than it is about typeface
design; legibility is more about the distinctiveness of individual

For the curious, the actions I took were as follows:

Since my writers had asked me for a specific typeface to use, I recommended
sans serif, and listed a couple of options (Arial and Helvetica). I
mentioned that the user's preferences would determine the ultimate
appearance of the text, so advised not to worry about it too much.

I ordered a couple of the recommended books, and look forward to reading
them when they come in--not having the resources to add a typographer to my
documentation team, the desktop publisher and myself will have to manage the
task together as best we can.

I realize that I was speaking more of legibility than readability (when I
thought about it) in my original query. Sorry for any confusion that ensued.

Thanks to everyone who responded. I appreciate the help!

Beth E. Scudder
Retek, Inc.
Technical Editor/Writer
(612) 395-8874

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