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Choosing a Font — RULE 3

Francis Meynell Poster
Readability –
Serif fonts versus San Serif fonts,

Romans versus Gothics… a classic debate.

We use fonts to write; for this reason the legibility and readability of the output is one of the most essential aspects of selecting a typeface. There are, of course, applications in which the primary purpose of the font has more to do with producing a graphical image, when it becomes more a picture than text, often seen in advertising, but that’s not what we’re dealing with in our simple four rules about choosing fonts.

Here, we will just ask the question, what is the best font for long text blocks?

It is generally believed that serif fonts are preferable for long text blocks. This has to do with the fact that the serifs themselves help the eye move horizontally across the page, allowing for an easy flow and less eyestrain. For this reason—and because the history of fonts has been dominated by serif fonts—most books use a serif font for the body of the work, one of the many, many, many serif fonts.

Chances are, avid readers—book readers—have become very comfortable with the serif fonts. They’re everywhere that serious reading is done and they have been for a long, long time. So these romans or serif fonts carry a certain… seriousness to them and, some even provide that most pleasant of characteristics, they just seem to disappear in favor of the text itself, at least when well laid out (this must be said because even a well-chosen font is not the whole answer to a successful layout). While some see the romans as classic and true, others find them staid and stale.

Comic books provide another example of how that to which we are accustomed seems the best to us. Comic book text bubbles used to be handwritten during the inking process. As production of these works moved from the drawing board onto the computer, the question of fonts arose. Interestingly, the fonts used have, for the most part, been fonts that resemble the old hand lettered comic book styles.

In a way this is much like the evolutionary process that occurred in the thirteenth century. The early fonts used in printing presses were also stylistic imitations of the hand-scripted letters common at the time in all European books. The pattern suggests that comic book lettering will evolve away from the hand lettered look and, in fact that is already happening. Here’s a link to a site on which you can scroll down and see examples of what are presented as Comic and Cartoon Letter Fonts.

Does one’s preference for some typefaces arise from habit, the comfort level that comes with use? Or, is it a matter of legibility?

Within the world of graphic designers, this debate—and in particular, the question, serif or san serif for text blocks—is a lively one, debated with surprising energy on both sides of the argument. The advent of the Internet has had a major impact on this debate. The plain truth is, while serif fonts on paper may well be the undisputed winners of the best-for-text-blocks font question, reading on monitors is an entirely different thing.

Monitors present data at a much lower resolution than can be accomplished on paper. The standard resolution offered on a computer monitors is between 72 and 100 dpi (dots per inch). The resolution on a sheet of printed-paper is a minimum of three times that of the monitor, and that’s for a low-end dot matrix printer output. The printed page offers a resolution of between 300 and 1,800 dpi, or higher. This difference is enormous and has serious implications about the readability of text on screen.

It is generally believed that san serif fonts make a better display for text online. This has to do with the fact that at lower resolutions little curves and details may become a distraction. Why? They aren’t rendered clearly. Thus a serif font may seem dirty, sloppy, or too busy on the screen while a san serif font appears clear, and sharp.

So, the current standard wisdom for selecting a typeface for text blocks is, (1) if for print, use a serif font, (2) if for online presentation, use a san serif font. This may change as our tastes and habits change and as resolutions on monitors improve. But for now, it is a safe and trustworthy rule.

Clearly, one of the important questions in choosing a font must be: What is my canvas?

Well, that’s what we’ll look at in Rule 4…

The poster at the top of this post is the creation of Francis Meynell, an accomplished graphic designer. The poster is part of a specially created collection that is really quite lovely to see and is available here.

Here’s a link to a site that provides the results of a non-scientific survey on font preferences. The interesting thing here is the fact that you can see different fonts onscreen, compared by typeface and size and also see how others rated these fonts for legibility on the screen.


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