Re: Fonts for Online documents

Subject: Re: Fonts for Online documents
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 19 Jun 1996 23:05:00 EST

At 03:37 PM 6/19/96 -0400, you wrote:
>The answer to the question of serif versus sans-serif fonts for online
>documents is actually technology driven. On paper, using printing technology,
>serif fonts are measurably more legible, because in tests people can read
>serif fonts more quickly and with fewer errors. This advantage has been
>grasped since before the Middle Ages (hey, would you carve serifs on your
>granite monuments if you didn't have to?). The theory is that the serifs help
>the eye recognize the shape of letters more quickly and accurately.

Hold on there, pardner. This is more myth than meat, methinks. Serifs were
carved on monuments, not for legibility, but to prevent the stone from
cracking at the end of the letter. Notice that serifs were only carved at
the ends of long, straight lines. Try carving a long, deep trench in a hard
stone and see how long it takes to split. The ordinary stresses of
weathering can crack such a stone within months.

The style was kept, not because it was innately necessary, but because it
was venerable. That's why such fonts are called "Roman," after the serif
style used by Romans. Another style emerged in the early decades of
printing, one that conserved space: Italic. Yet italic is almost unreadable
in large quantity. Often readability wasn't the prime consideration to
printers. Cost and acceptance were often more important.

Further, the studies that have allegedly shot down serif or sans serif in
legibility competitions are inconclusive and usually culturally biased. In
fact, evidence has shown that you like what you were exposed to first.
Europeans read sans serif slightly faster, while Americans read serif a
little quicker. There seems to be no strong positive correlation between the
supposed "eye-following" serifs and readability. This is actually
back-development, a testable theory that was never actually proven. Look at
old gothic script. There the writers often left only wispy traces of serifs,
yet produced writing that was easily readable to them. And several asian
languages took a completely different tack, employing pictures, pictographs
and ideographs that can be read by an experienced person as quickly as we
read English, all without the slightest trace of "eye-magnets". The
theoretical benefit of serifs seems to be a wive's tale that won't die,
rather than a demonstratable fact.

>On display screens, studies have shown the opposite -- that sans-serif fonts
>are more quickly and accurately read. Why? Because with their lower
>resolution, display screens don't show serifs very well. That is understood
>by companies that have studied the problem; I know Digital Equipment studied
>it, and I'm pretty sure I recall reading that Microsoft did extensive

Now this is true. And as a bonus, many sans serif fonts can be made tighter
so more words can fit in a screen. Faxes are the same way. Sans serif fonts
are preferable in faxes because the reproduction engines in the things are
so fuzzy. Further, OCR works better on sans serif faces.

Oh, by the way, we were informed by colleagues in Montreal that
"sanz-sairif" was an incorrect pronunciation. The correct way, we were told,
was "sonz-sareef".

Tim Altom
Vice President, Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice) 317.899.5987 (fax)
FrameMaker support ForeHelp support

Makers of DuoFrame, giving you online help and paper
documentation from a single parent FrameMaker document.

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