Publication Debate - Serif

dzi11's picture

I've read so many articles saying only use serif. I've seen articles that say both work. In my publications class there is this huge debate whether we use Serif font or San Serif in body copy...

Give me all the good reasons why Serif is so much better than san serif when it comes to the body copy of the articles.

If san serif works please say why.

Please explain thought. No 1 liners like: "Serif is easier to read." - but why is it easier to read?

Some reasons why san-serif suck:
I vs l

Why Serif's suck:
b vs h

blank's picture

Give me all the good reasons why Serif is so much better than san serif when it comes to the body copy of the articles.

Prattling on the superiority of serif fonts makes for great filler text in pretentious books about typesetting. And sticking with serifs keeps old people who read newspapers from complaining about font changes. That's about it.

dzi11's picture

@DunchwichType I feel the same. I feel Serif is simply formal whilst vs San-Serif seems more informal.

So if our student-made(written/designed) magazine is based on 5 articles based on each of the 5 senses. Do you feel more informal or formal?

Thanks for letting me pick your brain!

Nick Shinn's picture

Subtle, complex forms are more suited to subtle, complex ideas.
Do you want to dance to the music in a club, or listen to it in a concert hall; prepare vegetables to it, or have it as background over dinner?

blank's picture

Letters do not need serifs to be subtle and complex. Sans faces like Magma and Whitney have plenty of complexity and feel appropriate when used to express complex ideas.

dzi11's picture

Nick-Shinn what sanserif typeface would you use for ANY article's body copy? Just curious based on your last reply...

Nick Shinn's picture

It depends on the publication and article.
I would typically use a serif font for the main text and a sans for the sidebar.
In this mid-1990s example (sorry for the poor quality) Perpetua and Gill Sans.
It would be strange to imagine it the other way around.
But of course, in a more modernist (single face) layout one could use two weights of the same sans for main body and sidebar—but that wouldn't be such a nice or easy play of counterpoint for such a complex editorial hierarchy. Here I was able to use the same spec for subheadings in both main and sidebar, without it becoming same-y and not adequately differentiating the hierarchy. Had I use Perpetua Bold for the main subheadings, harmony would have been lacking. Counterpoint and harmony—musical terms, but very relevant to design.

riccard0's picture

“The sanserif only seems to be the simpler script. It is a form that was violently reduced for little children. For adults it is more difficult to read than serifed roman type, whose serifs were never meant to be ornamental.”

—Jan Tschichold, On Typography (1952)

dzi11's picture

So this is based on a degenerated society & lack of tradition, but the notion is still engrained in society...Great quote to understand history.

Technically would any book font work for san serif? Example for web: georgia vs verdana.. Gil sans feels more like a sub-headline font

Nick Shinn's picture

“Sanserif, looked at in detail, is admittedly capable of improvement, but there is no doubt that it is the basic form from which the typeface of the future will grow.”

—Jan Tschichold, The New Typography (1928)

Ray Larabie's picture

I don't like serifs because I'm tired of looking at them.

William Berkson's picture

There are no definitive tests as of yet to decide this question. However, I think there are good reasons to think that serifs are more readable for extended text, at small (text) sizes.

Some reasons:

1. Tests have shown that the extremes of the letters are more crucial in detecting them, and the serif faces are more differentiated.

2. Generally speaking, there is an agreement that sans of similar weight need more leading to be read comfortably. This seems to indicate that the serifs help the eye in identifying and holding to the line, and moving from line to line.

3. But the most compelling argument to me is that by now people are very familiar with sans letters being used in text. Yet for material that calls for extended reading, the preference of publishers and it seems readers remains overwhelmingly for serifs.

Because of the great familiarity with sans, and the fact that extended text is occasionally set in sans, I don't think that the preference for serifs can be put down to conservatism alone. There has been a push for increasing use of sans faces for nearly a hundred years, and they have been generally accepted for other uses, but not for extended text. To me that says there are advantages to serifs for reading comfort.

Interestingly, this seems to be not so clear a preference when it comes to the screen. With the difficulties of low resolution, it seems that serifs are less of an advantage at small sizes, or no advantage.

Nick Shinn's picture

Readability studies tend to focus on a very small part of the document (if the document is even considered), over a very brief period of time. Really, they are decoding studies.

But as much as one decodes letters or words, one reads documents.
And that is why page layout and typography are important elements of readability.

It's not really surprising that people prefer serifed type for the tombstone layout of books.
Great blocks of justified sans text lack flavor.
Consider the potential brutality of modernist architecture; the masters of the genre incorporated a human touch (Corbusier's accomodation of antique chairs) or organic material (Mies' use of marble and wood texture) to offset the austerity.

And in the more complex editorial layout with many layers of hierarchy, as I noted above, serif is preferred for the main text, and sans for ancillary copy.

To elaborate on this relationship: it is a principle of design that a large area of lighter tone may be balanced against a smaller area of darker tone. This holds for both traditional symmetrical layouts and modernist asymmetry. Now look at these four ways to combine sans and serif in subheading and body. One of them doesn't look right: the third—serif subhead with sans body. The second, sans subhead with serif body, offers the highest degree of counterpoint.

Put these two effects together, and it becomes clear that in documents which have both a hierarchy of text elements, and pages which are predominantly body text, serif type will be preferred for the body text.

typerror's picture

@ typodermic

I don't like Sans because I am tired of looking at them.

@ Dustin

Now you have two differing viewpoints :-)

William Berkson's picture

Nick your visual is interesting, but doesn't make the case that this is purely an aesthetic matter, and comfort in decoding text is not a factor. The bold serif with the sans doesn't seem to work I think because the thins of the bold are thinner than the horizontals of the sans.

In any case, this still poses no barrier to having sans for both subtitles and extended running text, which as I noted is relatively unusual, particularly with wider columns. I think my reasons for suspecting there serifs are more comfortable in extended text at small size in print still hold.

Nick Shinn's picture

The bold serif with the sans doesn't seem to work I think because the thins of the bold are thinner than the horizontals of the sans.

Whatever the reason, this is the "normal" kind of bold sans, with a relatively high degree of contrast between the dominant stems and the lesser stems and serifs.

There are certain kinds of relationships that work between serif subheads and sans body.
For instance, as your thinking indicates, it is possible to match the secondary stem weight of the serif with the stem weight of the sans—for instance, Bodoni Bold against News Gothic. Another combination is to use a slab serif bold.
But these are special cases, and the majority of serif faces don't work as bold subheadings with sans body.

…sans for both subtitles and extended running text, which as I noted is relatively unusual, particularly with wider columns.

Not so. That combination, which may be considered modernist, is much used in all kinds of publications. There are many other kinds of running text besides literary and academic books.

William Berkson's picture

>is much used in all kinds of publications. There are many other kinds of running text besides literary and academic books.

Both of your statements are true, but they don't conflict with the reality that extended print text is overwhelmingly in serif faces. And your reasoning doesn't explain that.

For example, just randomly clicking on ten newspaper first pages at the Newseum site, both in the US and Mexico, main body text in all of them is in serifs. I happen have from the public library at the moment five popular non-fiction books—not academic or literary—and all have body text in serif faces.

In fact, sans for main text is unusual, particularly in books. But even in newspapers and magazines, it is usually used for side bars or secondary, usually brief stories. My experience in as a reader for 60 years is that over 90% of extended text in print is serif, including today.

Your reply doesn't doesn't answer the question: Why is there an overwhelming preference for serifs for extended text in print, in spite of complete reader familiarity with sans faces? My answer is that there's an edge in reading comfort of serifs at text sizes. Do you have another explanation?

Nick Shinn's picture

Bill, I gave two page-layout reasons for the predominance of serifed body text.

The first—that a plain page of sans is rather dull—has nothing to do with ease of decoding, or reading comfort as you term it.
There is a widespread cultural dislike for artefacts which are plain and bland; people are generally uncomfortable with a simple design if it doesn't have a texture. Why else do we have patterns and decoration?

As for the second, the "complexity of hierarchy" argument, without statistical comparisons I'm not convinced by your personal experience. I'm sure I could walk into a bookstore and find all kinds of examples to support my theory. In my own experience as a typographer—although not quite as long as your experience as a reader—I can say that I have designed a lot of modernist documents with sans serif throughout, as well as many merely modern documents (see the financial newsletter above) with serif body and sans subheads and sidebars; and by so doing I was following well-worn paths.

The "reader familiarity" theory is dubious, because it is not readers who determine body types. Readers are at several removes: first typographers have to choose type, then their superiors approve it, then the client. That in itself is a strong argument for tradition, in which, despite "complete reader familiarity with sans faces", serifs got there first, and refuse to give ground.

William Berkson's picture

Nick, you are just not acknowledging reality if you don't acknowledge the overwhelming dominance of serifs in print text for extended reading. Just go into any library, or look at any newstand. It's just so overwhelming that it's ridiculous to deny. I didn't even see *any* newspaper font pages on the Newseum site where sans was the predominant text font.

The modernist movement did try to use sans much more, and still some people try to look "designer" by doing it. But the reality is that it never caught on, as sans for titles did catch on. That's why to me the "conservatism" argument doesn't work. If it were all conservatism—which I acknowledge is an important factor—then sans for titles would have never been accepted

As to your argument of sans titles with sans text being dull. Is that even with different weights and sizes? It sure didn't stop modernists from doing exactly that. But it's never caught on in print.

And meanwhile on the screen sans for extended text are much more common. Wouldn't your aesthetic argument go equally for the screen as not having sans headings and text? Yet they are widely used like this. I think that is evidence for reading comfort being a factor. On screen sans and serifs are more nearly equally bad, whereas in print to me serifs have a clear edge for reading comfort at small size for extended text.

Nick Shinn's picture

Nick, you are just not acknowledging reality if you don't acknowledge the overwhelming dominance of serifs in print text for extended reading.

Bill, I'm not disputing that. (You were disagreeing with me over the amount of sans body in sidebars and boxes.)

However, I am proposing that there are layout (page-level) reasons for this, rather than your emphasis on ease of decoding (letter and word recognition).

As to your argument of sans titles with sans text being dull.

I didn't argue that.

I think that is evidence for reading comfort being a factor.

Yes, as I stated, reading comfort is important.
You argue that letter and word decoding comfort is important.
Sure, if you want to call efficiency of decoding "comfort".
But reading is a much more holistic experience than that, and typographic culture far richer.
The concept of comfort is appropriate to the page and the overall reading experience, in which layout and typography play an important role.

William Berkson's picture

Nick, I am here following Matthew Luckiesh's concept of readability, which is well defined and which I talked about at TypeCon last summer and here in another thread. Fatigue shows up and is measurable by increase in blink rate, when other factors are held constant.

The point is, Luckiesh got significant differences varying typefaces, with other layout factors being similar. He didn't look at sans, as these weren't used for text at that time in the US (1938-39). I'm hoping that repetition of his experiments will validate his work, and can be taken further to shed light on several questions about sans.

Layout factors are important, but my argument is that the decisive thing here is an inherent problem with sans, or at least sans at small sizes for extended text in print. I'm guessing they they create a greater burden of fatigue.

Nick Shinn's picture

Bill, I know where you're coming from.

And I'm coming from a different place.

Speaking as a typographer and art director, I'm inclined to lay out a page with a certain preference for main body text not primarily because I want to lessen the reader's fatigue, but because I want to organize all the text into a functional hierarchy (by means of typographic harmony and counterpoint), and create an engaging document. As I have argued above, making the main body serifed facilitates this.

In comparison, I believe that the putative greater ease for the reader in decoding serifed text at the level of letter and word plays a very small role in the present preponderance of serifed body text in print publications.

We are cultural creatures who rarely take the straightest line between a and b.

William Berkson's picture

Yes, we are cultural creatures. But our physiology also has a lot to do with how we see, and how we read.

The only way to resolve this question would be by testing and it is testable, to this extent: we can have the same layouts and parameters (x height, weight) and the same layout, and see how much of a difference serifs make. If they do make a difference, I think that would be a strong argument.

My point is that culture changes, and has changed over past hundred years, when sans have been vigorously pushed by designers for print text. But with uncommon exceptions, they haven't been adopted in print, but have been on screen. That to me argues for a cause that transcends culture, namely human physiology.

Your "culture" argument also doesn't explain the screen/print divide, so to me it's particularly wanting there.

Yes, culture is a huge influence, but don't the limits of human physiology influence culture?

Nick Shinn's picture

…when sans have been vigorously pushed by designers for print text.

Modernism in general didn't penetrate mass media.
Tschichold pushed one way and then the other.

But with uncommon exceptions, they haven't been adopted in print,

Again, you're privileging academic texts and literature over catalogues and manuals.
I worked for many years in business-to-business marketing, and we generally used sans body text for industrial product brochures, advertisements and catalogues.

The only way to resolve this question would be by testing…

There you go again.
In the issue of science vs. the humanities, you propose a laboratory test as definitive!
A statistical analysis of media would be the cultural alternative, rather than your prejudiced statements about "acknowledging reality".

William Berkson's picture

This is not an issue of science vs humanities. That seems to be a big issue in your head, but it's not in mine. The issue is what's true. You can do both an analysis of statistics of media, and tests on reading fatigue. It's not one or the other.

On the issue of statistics, I just don't think there's any contest on the prevalence of serifs. You have to distinguish between display, captions, and also things like tables, the phone book, etc., on one hand, and, on the other hand, where extended reading of continuous text is of primary importance. Where extended reading is the main thing, serifs just dominate tremendously.

Nick Shinn's picture

This is not an issue of science vs humanities./em>

Perhaps not science in general, but a certain kind of behavioral lab testing, which represents the limited scope of reading science. Ergonomic lab tests cannot explain cultural phenomena. If that were the case, people wouldn't be walking around in high-heel shoes.

The issue is what's true.

You think that the predominance of serifs for body text (if that happens to be the case) could be explained by the fact that serifs might beat sans in a lab test.

Even if that turns out to be true, it's no proof because, as I have demonstrated, there are cultural explanations.

How do we weigh one against the other?

I just don't think there's any contest on the prevalence of serifs.

I don't disagree, and I have given cultural—i.e. historical, socio-economic, and aesthetic (predisposition to greater play of harmony and counterpoint in page layouts)—reasons as to why this may be, reasons which IMHO far outweigh the "ease of decoding" theory.

However, I do disagree with your contention of tremendous domination. It seems to me that the presence of serif or sans in body text is determined by genre, and a significant number of genres employ sans body text.

For instance, I recently designed a custom typeface for a branding agency, for their client, a bank.
It's a sans serif (to replace the present sans serif), in the four main styles, and will be used for all customer communications.
The driving concern in this rebranding was corporate identity, of course.
The main concern in its typography was not readability, but how the type represented the brand, which was most apparent in display settings. A sans with single-storey "a" was requested. It was understood that the same type would work well right down the hierarchy, to body text and footnotes. A two-storey "a" will be available in a stylistic set, for better text legibility.
This is my experience of how typography happens in practice, which is at odds with your observations and theories.

aluminum's picture

The answer to 'serif' vs. 'sans' is all about the context.

- what is the type being displayed on?
- what size?
- how much text?
- what kind of text?
- how's the leading/line length?
- color?
- where is it being read?
- who's reading it?
- what is the subject matter?
- what is the aesthetic objective?

dezcom's picture

The jury has never returned an absolute verdict. People have sometimes chosen a verdict that fits their own way of thinking or even suits their personal interpretation of research data. True, there may, in the future, be a more definitive set of studies that can be more usable in making the decision, but so far, I have yet to see "the light".

Your real question should be a bit more specific to the audience, purpose, and message of the text you want to set. Clearly, as you can see from the responses you have gotten, there is a difference of opinion on the subject. That leads me to believe there is also a difference of solution to the problem depending upon the specific situation.

Serifs don't suck;

Sans serifs don't suck;

Badly used instances of either or both can suck.

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