RE: Usability: Serif and Sans-Serif font faces?

Subject: RE: Usability: Serif and Sans-Serif font faces?
From: Solena -dot- LEMOIGNE -at- fr -dot- thalesgroup -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 4 Jun 2004 11:38:45 +0200

List members interested in this thread,

I'm posting a late follow-up to this thread for two reasons : first it's
friday so we may have some spare time on our hands second, I'm just back
from holidays.

This post is a collection of extracts from various postings on the subject,
and my two euro cents on them. I'd like to thank the people who have taken
the time to clarify some ideas, helped me (and probably others) learn a few
things and clear misconceptions.

- Quoting Dick Margulis -
"As to why European magazines tend to be set in sans serifs, I think the
main reason is that magazines hire graphic designers rather than

I agree with this explanation, which makes a lot of sense. It goes in the
same direction as what Geoff Hart typed: "Sans serif [manuals] always seem
like the designer is trying to be different or trendy rather than
effective". The comment is for manuals, but can be expanded to cover most
published material. Luckily, the post by Karel van der Waarde makes the
point that there was no real difference (for children at least) in reading
abilities whether using serif or sans serif fonts.

- Quoting Karel van der Waarde -
"The results show that children in our test group could read text set in
Gill and Century equally well."

Thank you for taking the time to answer Bruce Byfield's request as well as
mine. Ned Bedinger brings some light as to how dyslexics cans benefit from

- Quoting Ned Bedinger -
"About reading disorders and the effects of design, dyslexics report that
the words on a page seem to jump around, and that some environmental stimuli
seem to aggravate that. I am not diagnosed dyslexic, but as a reader I
benefit from some of the
remedies that dyslexics employ to overcome that problem, such as colored
(yellow for me) eyeglass lenses and incandescent (non-flickering) lighting."

This thread has revived a long-time choice: present information through
simple drawings when possible. Even very short-sighted people (like me) can
"read" a wiring diagram with little problems.

- Quoting Gene Kim-Eng -
"The only place I ever notice a difference is in online help. For some
reason, I always find serif fonts harder to read there. I suspect I'm not
alone in this, because I rarely see serifs used in help anymore."

The reason has probably been exposed by a poster previously (though I can't
quote this person directly as I've deleted the digests, so I'll reword the
general idea). This "some reason" is that serif fonts cannot be displayed
properly because the screen displays what fits in a pixel, and the serifs
usually take more than one pixel to display. So a serif font is either
displayed with bits of serif, or without the whole thing. The result is hard
to read as letters seem somewhat blurred. Whereas sans serif fonts fit
within pixels, and look much clearer.

- Quoting David Locke -
"As far as the books the monks copied, they were art. The serifs in them
probably echoed what could be put on the walls of cathedrals by the stone

There might be a technical constraint to take into account when doing
calligraphy on linen-based paper (or were they using velum at that time?).
If you use a quill to draw your letter and stop the contact between the
paper and the tip of your quill, chances are you'll end up with a blotch at
the foot of the letter. For instance, you draw the last stroke of an n,
pause shorlty to judge if the stroke is the proper size, then remove the tip
of the quill from the paper. The short pause is enough to leave a tiny-wee
drop of ink that will slowly leak in the paper, producing the blotch. A
simple way to prevent this is to remove the tip of the quill from the paper
with a sharp twist at the end, which produces an acceptable serif. I don't
know how particular inks behave on velum (prepared calf skin) since I have
no practice on this material as it's way too expensive for everyday
calligraphy exercises.
This is drawn from my experience, but it merely echoes what Dick Margulis
typed in his posts "Serifs began as a mitigation by stonecutters for the
problem of irradiation--the tendency of cracks to extend diagonally from the
ends of chiseled stems--in Roman capital letters (...). It is a happy
coincidence that they serve precisely the same purpose in letterpress
printing--preventing the irradiation of ink spiderwebs from the ends of
stems in soft paper."
There were a number of old and very old printing presses on display at the
city library last week, and I got a chance to run a few jobs on them. I had
a chat with the experts there who confirmed that the serifs indeed helped
limit the spread of ink. However, they said that ink and paper quality were
more important factors. My boyfriend who is a recreational art engraver

Happy friday !

Solena Le Moigne
Rédactrice technique - Cholet
Thales communications
Poste : 293097
solena -dot- lemoigne -at- fr -dot- thalesgroup -dot- com
"Sometimes I really think people ought to
pass a *proper* exam before they're allowed
to be parents. Not just the practical, I mean."
Miss Susan, in Thief of Time - Terry Pratchett


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