Microsoft

Fonts -- to serif or not to serif

Deciding which font to use might seem like a simple design issue. However, studies show that serif and san serif each improves reading skills in specific media.

You've probably seen the term serif before, and you might even know what it means: A serif is the small detail, or tail, that extends from the end of the core strokes that comprise alpha characters. A sans serif font doesn't have these details.november2008blog2fig1r.jpg

When choosing a font, be sure to consider how readers will view the document:

  • A serif font is easier to read in print, such as reports, books, catalogs, and newspapers.
  • A sans serif font is easier to read on a computer screen, such as fill-in forms and Web pages.

Experts theorize that the serif details help people read groups of words instead of single words. This seems to work well in print but not on screen.

About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

22 comments
pmwork1
pmwork1

The main reason serif fonts are easier to read in print is becasue the eye scans and the serifs (little tails on the letters) draw the eye's attention to the letters. However when used on a computer screen the image itself is "scanning" and this tend to confuse the eye. So the general rule is documents for print publication should use serifs and if the document is to be mainly used on the screen even with occasional print, use San Serif (no tails)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I do almost nothing intended to be printed. I could probably leave everything in Tahoma, MS's apparent default. To the untrained eye it appears close enough to Arial for daily use. I don't recall when or why I got into the habit of changing it. I abhor italics. We have an issue with one user's SAP client. The GUI displays his reports with a fixed font (looks like Courier), but when the same report when printed uses a proportional sans serif font. The columns stagger around like Saturday night at a frat house.

OldER Mycroft
OldER Mycroft

Over thirty years in the Printing/Publishing field, first 20 in the production end then 10 years on the IT side. This entire time period has convinced me that no matter how refined or bespoke the computer typesetting system is, if you make a bad choice of font, the reason is always that the font is inherently bad at creating ligatures. In the commercial printing industry if you go back to Monotype and Linotype, each typeface was made up of more than 52 alphabetic characters because account had to be made for ligatures that were NOT simply 2 characters appearing next to each other, they were a 'special' character created for that font and letter-combination. So if you were using a heavy serif face (and depending on the particular font design) some typefaces were heavily ligatured, other less so. The individual Compositors or Typesetters were trully the only people that knew what a good typeface choice was, and THAT was based on reading the entire body copy, identifying the incidences of how many, where, and how closely spaced these ligatures occurred. That is what makes a typeface readable or not. It's not the individual typeface design - it's what the words are within the copy that has been set in a particular typeface. Back to my original point at the top of the post: I have yet to witness a computer program that can accurately decide where and when to substitute a ligature for a particular letter combination - it doesn't have to be always a ligature, because sometimes it looks better without one. //End of professional rant// ;)

scowen
scowen

I cannot believe that no one has mentioned best practises. Most countries have some form of Disability Act that will state best practises for clear readability which you will find is Sans Serif fonts and above a certain point size. Sometimes you should think who else going to be reading the material.

ThumbsUp2
ThumbsUp2

And, don't forget the intended use. For making graphics, the font you choose doesn't matter except for legibility. But, if you're creating an electronic document that will be sent to others or creating a web page, if the font you use isn't present on the next computer used to view it with, they'll get some pretty strange results because their computer will attempt to substitute what IT thinks you need to see it with.

Tig2
Tig2

Since I do calligraphy, I tend to prefer a clean font that has an artistic edge. I have a particular love of English Black Letter and its variants but they are a PITA to read. Italic is easier to read but not nearly as artistic. I have a couple of hands that I developed over time but wouldn't know how to describe them. My favorite computer fonts are the ones that look like handwriting and are clear and easy to read.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Sans serif font - Tahoma. I use this quite often in documents containing tabular data with a high numeric content (IP addresses, phone numbers, etc.). I also find it easier to read than the default Arial in spreadsheets. Serif font - Good old Times New Roman. Nothing like it for me on the printed page.

CaptBilly1Eye
CaptBilly1Eye

I typically send email using Times New Roman simply because I think it's easier to read. But when making an advertisement, newsletter, flyer, menu, or something that may be printed, I'll reach into my arsenal and pull out a font that is more attention-getting. Arial and Verdana are still they standard font for web pages. I find that HTML email using a font that is too fancy is a pain to read and often just plain annoying. (I hate Incredimail!) During years in the publishing business, I collected over 10,000 fonts. But admittedly, I've probably never used more than a few hundred of them. When selecting what font to use, you need to take into consideration just exactly what its purpose is. That is, whether it is meant to stand out or simple convey a message clearly. Even if the intention is to be eye grabbing, don't let the font choice detract from the words themselves. One additional tip on fonts: Don't have more than 500 or so in your Fonts folder at any one time. Numbers greater than that will directly impact your system's performance. -

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Title says it all for me. I used to like simple fonts like Ariel, but as I get older I like the more complex styles. I read the New Yorker and they use Georgia, so as an aspiring writer that immediately became my favorite.

jon.h
jon.h

The preference for Serif or San Serif fonts depends on the primary exposure in school. Most schools in Europe seem to use material printed in San Serif and the most popular font choices are the same. In the USA, most school texts are printed with Century Schoolbook, or equivalent, with large for the point size, vertically oriented characters. Thus most Americans find body text in serif fonts easier to read. Although Times Roman is dominant, it has several flaws. Its x height (the height of letters without ascenders is less than many other fonts, which makes it harder to read. The Times probably chose it for body text because for a given point size, more text can fit in a limited space of a newspaper colums. I believe the old style fonts (such as those based on Venetian calligraphy), with greater x height are more readable. Some additional characteristic to look for are a slightly slanted letter "O" and the serifs of the capital "T" are both slanted to the left. Most of the time I use either Baskerville or Goudy Old Style for body text. If I require they be displayed properly I will create a PDF vesion of the document. In contrast to body text, the warm feeling Humanist 521 BT is good for pullouts and captions. Arial Rounded is also a good san serif choice.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Times New Roman is the font of choice for submitting content to almost all editors.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Good Lord. Is that anything like television channels? And don't let (word) choice detract, either, is what I learned from publishing, violating that every time. Good thing there are no serif choices here for me. I could really screw that up. Then Michael could run screaming when I prod him, like now.

john3347
john3347

Although Times-New Roman pops up as default on most word processors, I find this about the worst popular font to read - on paper or computer screen. When I was writing reports and papers for someone else to read, I used Rockford font in 14 point. (Rockford, unfortunately does not come pre-installed on any OS or included in any software package that I know of except in a greeting card application or two.) I have received more than one or two compliments on the "readability" of my papers done in this font. One night school instructor told me that he gave me a couple of extra grade points on my papers because I "made them so easy to read". I also use Verdana and Arial Rounded MT Bold quite frequently in different applications. I use Arial Rounded MT Bold exclusively for labels and such items that need to be printed very small(6 to 10 point). Just as a general comment I would say that a typical computer user only needs/uses perhaps 20 or so fonts. I have about 100 fonts installed (the majority of them never used) and approximately 2000 saved in a folder, but not installed (the entirety of these never used, but available). Many, many fonts are so similar that only a professional would even recognize the difference between them unless they are being compared directly side by side.

kurt.houghtaling
kurt.houghtaling

Visual acuity makes a huge difference. Close-packed sanserif fonts can become very difficult to read. For example, consider the Times-NewRoman typeface... corn com Now consider the Arial typeface (same size)... corn com Arial Narrow exacerbates the situation. Related to individual eyesight, Arial characters, sufficiently small, are a PITA to recognize. One of the few sanserif typefaces I can read comfortably is Verdana, because of the letter spacing (or kerning). Hmmm. Reviewing what I had just submitted, I don't see much distinction between recognition challenges at the size displayed. So, I'll not be able to make my case here... never mind.

OldER Mycroft
OldER Mycroft

Due to plagiarism of the font design. Hundreds of 'Typefaces' are all the same font just with different leading or em spacing, which in olden times would have been achieved in the typesetting caseroom, NOT by purchasing an entire new case of type. ;)

hds3onlineaccts
hds3onlineaccts

Are you sure you're referring to Rockford and not Rockwell? I re-formatted some text from Times New Roman to Rockford. The result was much less readable than the TNR, and was certainly not suitable for any formal purpose.

lastchip
lastchip

Thank you for your interest. It's always good to discover something new and as web publishing is outside my normal area of work, it sort of gave me the Wow factor! I do appreciate what you say about closing code and the potential annoyance factor too.

CaptBilly1Eye
CaptBilly1Eye

Just be sure to close your tags or it screws up the coloring and structure of other posts in the same thread. That is... make sure you have < / font > at the end. (without spaces, of course) Please also remember that a novelty becomes an annoyance when it's over-used. ;-)

lastchip
lastchip

Just looking at how the code works in TR. Is this Verdana? Wow! it works! Edited for complete shock that I achieved my first public piece of HTML code!

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