Serif v. Sans for Text
Until several years ago, when it came to setting text copy, sans serif typefaces were the typographic underdog. Some experts still advocate against using them smaller than 10 point.
The criticism of sans serif typefaces for text copy falls into two general areas, both concerning ease of reading. First, many typographers have maintained that serifs help to guide the reader’s eye across the page. This would be true if the eye moved across a page in one smooth sweep. It’s been proven, however, that we jump from one series of words to another, in what are called saccadic movements – and serifs have no effect on this way of reading.
Second, some designers believe that the monotone appearance of many sans serif typefaces tends to tire the eye in lengthy text composition. Although there have been no definitive studies to confirm this belief, most typographers agree that a large block of copy set in a typeface such as Frutiger Serif, with more prominent contrasts in stroke thickness, is more inviting than copy set in a monoweight design such as Futura.
While some studies suggest that serif typefaces may be more readable than a sans in print, findings regarding on-screen typography favor the use of sans serif type – or a small group of robust serif designs – for text copy.
As with many matters typographic, the best choices are those that are most appropriate to the usage and the reader. If you are setting large blocks of copy intended for continuous reading in hardcopy form, a serif typeface might be a good first choice. If, however, you are designing a parts list, directory, or other document where information will be looked at in small blocks of copy in an onscreen environment, a sans serif typeface may be your best choice.
If your project will be typographically number-intensive, serifless designs often provide the best options, because the figures in sans serif typefaces are usually very highly legible.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.