Are Sans Serif Fonts Really Better Online?
We’ve all been told Arial (sans serif ) is best to use online and most serif fonts are better used in print. Why? I’m typing this article on WordPress in the default Times New Roman. You’re reading it in Droid Sans, Arial, Verdana, or any other sans serif font your browser supports. Does it really make a difference? I was curious, but lazy, so this illuminating article by Alex Poole, who researched over 50 studies to get the answer, was worth every (sans serif) character.
Writers and fonts, typographers’ errors, and conclusions
Although this debate has been raging since prehistoric times, most writers (read: me, myself, and I) use the default typeface in the word processor. This is usually either Times New Roman (serif) or Arial (sans serif). Much more concerned with the actual content being produced, we generally adjust the font only for volume, by increasing point size or line spacing. If we have any, we’ve been keeping our font idiosyncrasies to ourselves ever since our youthful Curlz (serif) phase, which we won’t talk about.
In my lifetime, I’ve only used perhaps 30 of the tens of thousands of different fonts available today. Designers use many more, to create banners, logos, and other image files not limited by the constraints of web browsers, which only support a few fonts universally. It turns out browser constraints are the only good reason I could find to stick with sans serif Arial on screen after reading Poole’s analysis.
Poole concluded there is no study proving serif fonts are less legible than sans serif or vice-versa that is not countered by empirical studies finding no significant difference. He explains that high profile studies claiming the superiority of one over the other have been criticised for either making erroneous claims or being methodologically flawed. Besides, there are many more factors contributing to a font’s legibility than just serifs. The examples Poole provided helped me discover why Times is so differently sized than Bookman Old Style (the great page-count extender!), why Arial is so much larger than Calibri, and why they all use different areas on the page in the same point size.
But doesn’t all this have to do with print versus onscreen reading? Many believe that because pixels are a grid and a curved letter has to fit the grid, edges may look jagged and cause stress to readers’ eyes. But I see no jagged edges as I type in 12-point Times New Roman. And it turns out, as Poole notes, other studies found no difference between legibility of print versus on-screen type. However, the myth continues to be perpetuated.
The best font for marketing
Use common sense: pick a font for both your browsers and your readers. It makes sense to continue using the fonts most widely used online to avoid distraction (unless that’s your aim). But if you fall for a font that only Internet Explorer recognizes, limit it to the title (with an alternate font set for other browsers) or turn it into an image, keeping in mind that load time will be affected if you choose the latter.
Choose a font or font family to keep the reader’s eyes on your message. Use variations of a font like Arial or Times to make the text itself ”invisible” as you reach through the letters on screen to reach your customer. Use images to shoulder the majority of the burden of visual perception. If all I remember you by is your font, that’s probably not a good thing.
In the end, you’ll be doing the selling, not the font. So if your copy is amateurish or boring, you won’t sell much no matter what the font looks like. But on the other hand, if the font has readers squinting or blinking while reading, you can bet they’ll be happy to find relief–and merchandise–elsewhere.
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I am so glad I stumbled across this post, as this is a question I have been asking myself for quite some time. I'm a web/graphic designer, so the importance of unique and vivid fonts is important, but I'm also a freelance writer where I am constantly using the generic fonts for manuscripts and website copy. I'm a walking conflict when it comes to this issue. Thanks for the info! :)
I've come up with a solid compromise: using unique fonts for headings of blog posts and website headings, and then using the generic "accepted" text for the ad copy. Helps me to fill both of my compulsions.
I'd always been curious, and I'm not a designer. It was just so striking that I see only Arial or sans-serif lookalikes on websites, and I thought, there are hundreds of fonts! Is there some sort of physical law extracted by science that we'll all be destroyed if we use a serifed font? I was delighted to find this isn't true. Glad you found it, too, Krissy.
Shakirah, Not sure I pay that much attention to this, so my inner designer will have to RT this tomorrow. There is something about fonts and standards, rules you don't want to break. BTW Your headline in serif looks good.
Not sure I think sans serif works better online, but in certain contexts a serif font looks.. out of place and possibly unprofessional. I've seen many sites junked up by mixing too many fonts, colors, etc. that look amateurish. You need to stick with universal fonts and font families, optimized for all browsers. Design 101 I guess - readability and legibility, always. FWIW.
I've been curious about the difference for years, but only just got around to looking it up. I was shocked by the findings that there isn't any firm proof of serif over sans serif. But at the same time I don't think our preference for sans serif online is all in our heads. And I agree there is something to be said for toeing the line when it comes to presenting content well.