Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Serif Readability Myth

Kas Thomas:

I’ve been involved in publishing all my life, and like many others I’ve always accepted as axiomatic the notion that typefaces with serifs (such as Times-Roman) are, in general, are more readable than non-serif typefaces (e.g., Helvetica). It never occurred to me that there was any doubt about the matter. Were the monks who invented serifs and other text ornamentations merely engaging in idle doodling? Weren’t they consciously intending to increase the legibility of the important documents they were transcribing?

It turns out that, as with so many of the things we “know” are right, the idea that serif typefaces are more readable than non-serif typefaces simply isn’t supported by the evidence.

Fascinating. I, too, have subscribed to the notion that serif faces are easier to read in print than sans-serif ones. Every class I’ve ever had on the subject has taught me this, and it seemed to make sense. But Thomas cites a number of articles that make a compelling argument against this agreed truth.

One of the things often singled out as enhancing readability is variance in stroke width. Since serif faces often employ this feature (see Bodoni for a particularly egregious example), it’s often taken for granted that it must be that kind of typeface that makes it more readable. Sans-serif faces don’t usually use variable stroke thickness because it often looks bizarre without the serifs to terminate the strokes. But the two do not go hand-in-hand, as Thomas notes.