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24 September 2010

To serif or not to serif? That is not the question!

Do you need to decide on a font to use for a publication or for your organisation? Don’t limit your discussions to whether you should choose serif or sans serif. (A serif is a fine line finishing the main strokes of a letter, such as at the top and bottom of a Y.)

Several factors affect legibility and readability, and a much broader range of fonts are now available to organisations than ever in the past. Factors include point size, x-height, leading, character spacing, alignment, and typestyles that can affect legibility and readability of type.

Because of this variety of factors, it is very difficult to design a research study that gives a definitive conclusion on such a fundamental issue as ‘serif’ or ‘sans serif’. Indeed, in a literature review of readability research I did some years ago, I found strong research-based opinions for both extremes, plus ‘it doesn’t matter’ in the middle.

This is a good literature review of over 50 empirical studies.

In this study, the researcher made interesting discoveries about the impact of point size, and gives reasons for preferring sans-serif faces for online publication.

Wheildon’s ‘Type and Layout’, published in 1995, and based on research done in Australia, has some interesting findings. I wrote an article on it at the time, a rewritten version of which is still on the web.

Wheildon is a strong supporter of serif fonts in print, but his research has been criticised for using a less legible font as his basis. However, his conclusions on line length and line spacing are strongly supported by researchers across the entire spectrum of opinion.

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