Usability: Serif and Sans-Serif font faces?

Subject: Usability: Serif and Sans-Serif font faces?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 12 May 2004 09:25:50 -0400

Ned Bedinger wondered: <<What is the usability issue that dictates the use of serif and sans-serif font faces?>>

Not a trivial question, since many, many other typographic factors and their many interactions greatly outweigh the serif/sans issue. Assuming that you've chosen a serif and a sans serif font that are both designed to be legible rather than decorative and that you've manipulated all other typographic factors (line length, leading, tracking, etc.) to support the goal of legibility:

- In print, the serifs on the fonts increase the visual distinctiveness of the character shapes, and thus increase their legibility compared with sans serif type. This is often an issue of the quality of the design itself, and for faces such as Garamond, there are so many different variations of the design from different type designers that it's hard to generalize even for a specific font.

- Onscreen, serifs are harder to render properly, since many subtle features of the type are smaller than the pixels that must be used to display them. So a serif font may be fuzzier as a result of anti-aliasing or other display artifacts. "Slab" serifs display better because they tend to be set at right angles (i.e., follow a line of pixels) and tend to be closer to the pixel size. (That's a very broad generalisation, thus misleading.)

This information is based on a range of cognitive psych studies that I've read over the years, dating back to studies of old IBM CRT fonts in the early 1980s in _Human Factors_ magazine and more recent "broad-based" studies such as Colin Wheildon's.

None of these studies has been definitive, because the authors either controlled so many typographic factors that the results apply only to that combination of factors, or left so many factors uncontrolled that the comparison of serif vs. sans was overwhelmed by variations in the other factors. Moreover, even studies that have shown _statistically_ significant differences have generally failed to show _practically_ significant differences; Eva Brumberg's recent articles in _Technical Communication_ are interesting in this respect.

In short, if you choose legible fonts and use them well, the differences between serif and sans serif aren't meaningful in practice.

<<I first got the word (that sans-serif was more readable) from Mac users, who seemed to value aesthetics more than PC users.>>

This may have been true at one point, since Windows took more than a decade to become a practical tool for design, whereas the Mac was design-friendly right from the start. But I doubt the generalization is still valid; nowadays, you'll find roughly as many designers using Windows as use the Mac, and the Mac folk have raised the bar high enough that Windows users now expect comparable esthetics.

<<In my experience, you would neither have to look far to find users that want all body text in sans-serif, nor would you have to look far to find users who would read serif body text with nary a whimper.>>

Precisely. I personally find serif body text much easier to read, but I can read a well-chosen, properly formatted sans serif font well enough to get by. The difference is largely a matter of experience, not inherent legibility. I read so much serif text and so little sans that it's only natural to expect I'd be faster with serif. I imagine Nordic and French readers, who tend to prefer sans serif text, read significantly slower than North American readers despite their font choice, and to me, that's the compelling point in this whole debate.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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Usability: Serif and Sans-Serif font faces: From: Ned Bedinger

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