In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,
You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…
Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.
Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.
But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).
If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.
Both authors comment on serifs for their ability to enhance readability, but not under all conditions. Hyndman writes that studies have shown readers trust news written in serif typefaces more than sans serif (p. 59). She adds,
Serif typefaces are associated with academia and knowledge, whereas Sans Serif Trebuchet does not convey the same gravitas.
On page 67, she cites a study that showed readers found a story was more humorous or satirical when written in serif Times and sans serif Arial (I’ll have to remember that when I write humour the next time…).
Beier dedicates her entire Chapter 10 to the debate between serif and sans serif. And she writes of the studies,
In most cases, the data shows no significant difference, and when it does, there are just as many studies in favour of the serif as in favour of the sans.
Would that it were that simple! Beier (p. 127) examines the methodologies of the studies, concluding the differences between sample typefaces were often overlooked. Even when Lucinda, a typeface specifically designed in both forms to be similar aside from the slab serif, the forms have differences in letter spacing that affect readability. She concludes “serifs are not by default a legibility-improving feature.”
I was gobsmacked. That is almost heretical. Is she a serif agnostic? Or maybe even a serif atheist?
She then discusses a 1973 study that showed serifs affected the legibility of each letter differently. Another comment that played whack-a-mole on my conceptions about serifs and sans. Yet both authors note that readers generally choose serif typefaces over sans and ascribe to them greater credibility.
Beier doesn’t dismiss serifs, but clearly through her own design and studies, she questions the popular wisdom behind the belief they enhance legibility.
Beier suggests our response has in part to do with familiarity: readers are more accustomed to serif faces. Although first developed in the 18th century, there were looked upon with suspicion by printers for more than a century and seldom found in body copy.
Even when used, they tended to be for artistic effect or headlines, rather than body type. Hyndman points out that sans serif typefaces didn’t really start to see frequent use until sometime in the 1930s. They came to represent modernity, change, revolution when they were used and grew in popularity (and thus familiarity) from the 1950s-on. Today they are commonly used (and tehcnology makes them as easily accesible as other forms).
All of which is to say I have to re-assess my position. But as you know, it’s not all that simple and context always has to be taken into account: the design, page size, column width, height, weight, leading and so on. I still tend to side with serif fonts, and cling to the belief that they offer more comfort and credibility in body text, but will try to be more flexible in how I view sans serif in the future.
* Hyndman uses Balega, a decorative face, for chapter titles and headlines, and the smaller serif Century Expanded for references and captions. I find this provides a nice type contrast. Beier, on the other hand, uses her own Ovink for headlines, chapters and body, providing contrast through weight, size and colour. Both have extensive samples of other typefaces.