Nathon John Hay
February 19th, 1999

Reading and Typography

Reading is unavoidable. Students read textbooks; fathers readnewspapers; engineers read manuals; technicians read webpages;politicians read bills; Christians read the Bible, and the list goeson. Everyone reads something. Seeing, perceiving, and recognizinglines and dots as a form of language is a process that is extremelycomplicated yet necessary. Scientists have researched many aspects ofthe visual reading process, and one of the most immediatelyapplicable areas of concern is in the field of typography.Researchers are attempting to answer two questions posed by publicssuch as graphic artists, magazine editors, résuméwriters, and even standardized test publishers: What typestyle isbest for what situations?, and How do different characteristics of afont affect different audiences?

The term font is a generic word used to express the generalcomputer category of typewritten characters. Similarly, a type ortypeset refers to a complete family of sets of characters having acertain fundamental design or structure. For example, the Couriertype may include the variations Courier New and Courier Bold.Other typesets are Caslon,Quill, and Old English. Typestyle is used tocategorize types by attributive similarities. Two of the mostrecognizable, and most researched, typestyles are distinguished bythe presence or absence of serifs and by fixed width (FW) andvariable or proportional width (PW) pitch. Types which display theserif feature add short, decorative lines to the tips of thecharacters; this line of print (12pt PW) is in Garamond and hasserifs. Types such as Arial, as in this line (12pt PW), do not havethe serif addition and are thus called sans serifs. A fixed widthfont may be like this Andale Mono (12pt FW), and a proportional widthfont may look like this Times New Roman (12pt PW).

Other attributes for fonts include size, letter width, strokewidth, and leading. All of these qualities combine to produce a greatnumber of options for users. Likewise, there are as many types andvariations of users as there are fonts, and consequently theseaudiences have unique needs for reading and for font usage. Theelderly prefer a different font than younger people (Keller 1997).Normal vision readers have a greater advantage in seeing than lowvision persons, so special considerations must be made for those lessfortunate (Mansfield, Legge, & Bane 1996), and persons readingfrom print are affected differently than those viewing a computermonitor. Researchers have considered these differences and have putfonts and their traits to the test.

Thomas Keller of Nonprofit World Magazine noted a surveyconducted by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). The DAV sent outmailings with a new type, a serif type, and reportedly claim thattheir bottom-line profits increased by $500,000 due solely to thechange in typestyle. Keller also attests that the DAV's findingssupport the "conventional wisdom" that serif types are more legibleand effective than sans serif faces. Unfortunately, his "conventionalwisdom" contradicts that of graphics professionals, and hisconclusions from the mailing survey are improperly made, asscientific research indicates that other equally subtle factors thanthe face are involved in readability (Arditi, Knoblauch, &Grunwald 1990). Nevertheless, articles like Keller's printed inwidely read magazines could have far-reaching, negative implications.To claim from one survey that sans serif fonts are, on the whole,useless is both arrogant and unfounded, and, also, the "conventionalwisdom" he promotes is too limited in scope to be wisdom. Gratefully,a fine point was made when he emphasized how important it is to knowwhen and when not to use certain typestyles.

Normal vision readers, for instance, have little troublereading any font, with or without serifs. The human eye and itscortical organization allows us to analyze and comprehend a nearinfinite diversity of variations in type. Because we can read so manytexts with so many alterations, it is not surprising that mostreading material is in a serif typestyle. Truly, serifs are moreaesthetically pleasing, are the most common and therefore mostquickly readable or recognizable, and it has been suggested by RolfeF. Rehe as quoted in Keller's article that the serifs create a moredistinctive shape for letters causing serif faces to be more easilyperceptible than sans serif faces. Not so truly; Yager, Aquilante,and Plass (1998) show that at normal luminance at regular size,reading speed for serif fonts is equal to that of sans serif fontsthus challenging Keller's, and perhaps catholic America's,"conventional wisdom" that serifs are far superior.

Not so amazingly then, most other research presents serifs in abad light. Yager et al. (1998) also show for low luminancelevels the sans serif was read approximately 11.5% faster than theequally sized serif sentences. They also indicated that at a smallersize, in normal lighting, both normal and low vision readers read thesans serif faster than the serif. Leat, Li, and Epp's (1999)experimental pretest indicated that, in eccentric (non-foveal)vision, sans serif letter Cs allowed for a smaller acuity level (thesmallest size that can just be read) than serif Cs, providing aslight explanation for Yager et al.'s discoveries about thegreater versatility of the sans serif typestyle.

Too, varying stroke thickness and serif size may account forserif's low applicability at dim light levels and small sizes. Theadditions of lines and changes in thickness in the visual readingfield may clutter, rather than help, our processing of data (referredto as crowding), especially with large amounts such as paragraphs ina novel or with small print as in a dictionary. Regan and Hong(1998), while studying recognition and detection of texture-definedletters, discovered that as more "noise dots" were added to a lettercell, letter recognition by participants was less accurate for serifCs than for sans serif Cs. In other words, serifs may make lettersharder to distinguish, and it may be extended that other slightinfluences on letters can change their identifiableness as well.

Another overt variable in the function of legibility is kerning orpitch (spacing between letters), and reading research has focusedmuch on this area. Overall, results indicate that one pitch style isnot better than the other; rather, they have complementary functionsserving in one situation where the other lacks. Arditi et al.measured subjects' reading rates for sentences of differing pitchesand sizes. For medium to large sized fonts (about 18pts), theproportional width (PW) type was read faster. Mansfield et al.replicated the results showing maximum reading speed at normal sizeof PW fonts over fixed width (FW) fonts was 5%. For font sizesnearing the reading acuity limit (about 9pts), Arditi et al.found the FW type to have been read faster. Mansfield and colleaguesreproduced similar results as well. Arditi et al. explainsthese paradoxical outcomes stating that crowding of the PW charactersat small sizes makes them illegible. Interestingly, Yager etal. reported FW serifs as having been read faster than PW serifs(remember Regan & Hong's suggestion that serifs may causecrowding). Also discovered by Mansfield et al. was a sizedifferential. For PW typestyles to be as equally readable as FWstyles, the PW font had to be 15% larger.

In summary, the following data were discussed (better refers to an increase in reading speed or legibility):

As such, the following conclusions can be presented. The bestgeneral type for all users may be a serif font of a large size with afixed width. This combination allows for all audiences to receive thebest of these style options.

More specifically, normal vision readers have few majorproblems reading any type, but may prefer a sans serif, fixed widthfont when in dim lighting or with small sizes, and a serif,proportional width font at other times. Low vision persons, on theother hand, are at a distinct disadvantage to normal vision readersand require special consideration. These individuals may prefer orneed a large sized sans serif fixed width font because of the ease ofreadability and reduction of the crowding effect. They may alsoprefer a sans serif over a serif for any pitch, size, or lightingbecause of the sans serif's increased acuity.

Other users require unique typestyles, too. For example, verylittle formal research has been done on the typographical needs ofthe large population of computer users. One researcher (Geske 1996)examined the legibility of a sans serif font on computer screens andshowed that bolding significantly increased legibility. Knowing this,though, is just skimming the surface. Readers viewing text onmonitors are receiving direct light, as opposed to print whichreflects light, and accordingly have heightened eye strain. Also,computer screens do not have the resolution capabilities thatprinters do, and as a result acuity is reduced. There is much leftfor others like Geske to investigate in order to expand our knowledgeof the reading needs of computer users.

More fundamentally, though, any amount of research in the generalarea of typography would be welcomed. Many others like Keller makeinaccurate assumptions without consulting proper data. Vrest Orton(1993) introduced a controversy about illiteracy among children byblaming US book and magazine publishers for creating "unnatural andmonotonous" texts by using sans serif type. Behavior like this canonly be counteracted by reversing the effects of misinformation.Until more robust, empirical studies are conducted analyzing allaspects of types and their characteristics and their affects onvarious classes of people, persons will continue to base theirtypographical decisions more on aesthetic pleasantry and conveniencerather than on informed, accurate depictions of what works best forwhom in which environments.


Arditi A., Knoblauch K., & Grunwald I. (1990). Reading with fixed and variable pitch. Journal of the Optical Society of America, 7, 2011-2015.

Geske J. (1996). Paper presented at Association for Education and Journalism and Mass Communication: Legibility of sans serif type for use as body copy in computer mediated communication. Anaheim, CA: ERIC. ABSTRACT.

Keller T. (1997). Choosing the right type translates into cash for your cause. Nonprofit World, 15(6), 18-19.

Leat S.J., Li W., & Epp K. (1999). Crowding in central and eccentric vision: The effects of contour interaction and attention. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, 40, 504-512.

Mansfield J.S., Legge G.E., & Bane M.C. (1996). Psychophysics of reading XV: Font effects in normal and low vision. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, 8, 1492-1501.

Orton V. (1993). Why Johnny can't read. Zip/Target Marketing, 16(6), 11-12. ABSTRACT.

Regan D. & Hong X.H. (1994). Recognition and detection of texture-defined letters. Vision Research, 34, 2403-2407.

Yager D., Aquilante K., & Plass R. (1998). Rapid communication: High and low luminance letters, acuity reserve, and font effects on reading speed. Vision Research, 38, 2527-2531.


Printed in 12 pt Book Antiqua.
Some specific types may not appear correctly due to individualdifferences among computers.

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