sans serif

yet again I trip across a snarky tweet about a distinguished scientist using comic sans

or some other whimsical and easily read on a screen unprofessional and unserious design choice in a presentation

these theological wars are becoming as bad as PC/Mac or emacs/vi flame wars of yore

anyone care to summarise, rationally, and briefly, why serif or sans matters?

Please avoid references to unrepeatable badly controlled A/B studies, and opinion polls of helvetica-phobic graphics designers.

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I think the objection is not to sans-serif fonts in general, but to Comic Sans in particular. There are times when you want the thing you are working on to look like it belongs in a comic book, e.g., when you are actually working on a comic book. P. Z. Myers routinely ridicules idiots by quoting them in Comic Sans. Most of the time, you don't want a scientific presentation to look like something from a comic book.

I happen to be a fan of Helvetica, personally. But I'm not dogmatic about it; I've used Gill Sans as well. I definitely don't like Arial, Microsoft's Helvetica knock-off, but that's a matter of aesthetics. And there are times when you are better off with a serif font like Times New Roman or Computer Modern. It all depends on what you are doing.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Jun 2014 #permalink

Sans serif fonts, together with high constrast, are strongly encouraged for readability, especially for viewers with low vision. Helvetica, Arial, whatever, are excellent fonts to use for presentations, and even for documents being pblished for public consumption.

The flame wars are generally focused on the Micros**t "Comic Sans" font in particular. As Eric Lund wrote, the font was designed to mimic the typical hand-lettered font used in comic books and graphic novels. As a result, it carries a subtext of both levity and pop consumerism (c.f. 19th Century dance hall music vs. Italian opera, or penny dreadfuls vs. Wuthering Heights).

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 04 Jun 2014 #permalink

Illuminating the reason to use fonts with serifs is easily seen in the first word of this sentence.

Ill-designed fonts like this don't distinguish between upper case eye and lower case ells.

Sans serif fonts tend to appear on computer screens because in the old days the displays and printers had low resolution.

I'll end this comment now.

By Bernard Leikind (not verified) on 04 Jun 2014 #permalink

Apropos of Eric Lund: if you want someone to be able to read text that isn't that big (say 12 point or smaller) a serif font is generally just easier on the eyes because the serifs help you see the "lines." On top of that, a word like "Ill" (sickness, capitalized) is near- impossible to distinguish fro III (Roman numeral 3) in the sans serif font used on this very blog. Even in a big-lettered presentation stuff like that can be a problem.

As a rule of thumb: on any font I type with when it's a document I want every character to be distinct. (Insofar as that's possible, but it usually only is problem with "1" and "l" and "I"). There's no reason to make life hard for people like me who need reading glasses.

If I am doing a Powerpoint presentation then I can get away with sans serif fonts (no Comic sans!) but again I want to make sure that even for people with crappy vision it's readable. My own test is simple: take my glasses off and see if i can read it (or at least make out the letters). Since I have 20/200 vision, if I can read a card a few feet away with minimal squinting then as far as I am concerned it's readable to everyone. Not a perfect rule, but useful.

@6: Well said, Jesse.

And for readers such as myself who have impaired reading and writing skills, why doesn't the Safari Reader tool work with this website?

@Pete A - I don't know and had not realised that it did not.
I'll check the settings I have access to when I get a chance, but I suspect I do not have access to that level of control.
I will also sent it up to the SciBlog overlords, but it may be a Wordpress issue rather than an option in the templates.
I'll try to find out. Silly not to use such features.

For some the selection of fonts is an art form. It adds a new dimension and subtle commentary to their writing.

ie: You might use courier to express authority or the conventional wisdom while Comic Sans expresses comedy, parody or stupidity.

There are people who can wax eloquent for hours over the subtleties of fonts that pretty much all look alike to me. I just want a font that reads well, scales well if I use a magnifier, and, if possible, a font that will work for OCR in case I go blind and need my computer to read to me.

Reading graphic novels forty years ago, yes, they existed back then, albeit smeared on mammoth hides with charcoal, a few authors decided to make the text look more techy with unfortunate choices of font, some of them are almost unreadable and they ruined the experience for me.

I guess that makes me a pedestrian and a clod in the world of font appreciation.

@Steinn #8 -- Many thanks. I've done some investigating: the Reader tool works on Ethan's posts and it includes the graphics. On some of the other blogs it shows the text, but not the graphics, which makes using the tool rather pointless. On other blogs the Reader button is disabled.

Fortunately, I find the font and line spacing used on SB easier to read than many other websites.

For most of my life I really struggled learning from textbooks. A few years ago I read a book that was easy to understand. I thought initially it was the author's writing style, but it slowly dawned on me that it was the unconventional typography used to produce the book that made it easy for me to comprehend the subject matter.

@Art -- I'm curious which you mean because there were some rather well-known letterers -- yes, that was a thing -- who did the text and the sound effects (the "BOOMs" and such). I remember one in particular, I think (I could be spelling this wrong) his name was Tom Orzechowski. He used to work on several titles, I remember X-Men of the period in particular. He was trained as a calligrapher and you could see it in the lettering choices he made, which were not only eminently readable but beautiful as well.

Ah, here's his wiki page:

@Pete A: it sounds like the issue might not have been uncommon typography on the books you were using, but using books that tried to get too clever with it and then finding one that was "old fashioned." I say this because I use a number of recent physics texts, and oddly enough one that is more readable (in the sense of being able to do so with minimal visual help) is one by Max Born, obviously reprinted from the original plates. It's really amazing what the serifs do, an how much easier even relatively similar-looking fonts are compared to their cousins sometimes.

When I first started using a Mac a lot in the late 80s I went a little font-crazy. I think everyone did when TrueType first came out. One of the things that I think has been an unfortunate by-product of the ease of making fonts on a computer is people sometimes try to get too fancy/ clever about it.

@Jesse: apologies for not explaining what I meant by "uncommon typography". I meant spitting information into easily manageable chunks via the astute usage of diagrams, subheadings, fonts, indentation, lists, tables, with plenty of interesting asides that are indented in a different colour and/or typeface.

Serif fonts may help maintain horizontal reading alignment. What I've mentioned above helps maintain vertical reading alignment, which is especially important to readers such as myself who need to frequently look away from the text in order to assimilate the sentence or paragraph that we've just read.

Discussions on typography fascinate me: they make me wish I could sit in a "human simulator" for a day so that I could experience the world through the eyes and cognition of others.

Sans- Serif fonts are terrible for chemical formulas, because you cannot tell the difference between a lower case letter "ell" and an upper case letter "eye". Practicing chemists rarely have trouble with this because they can usually identify the correct interpretation from context, but beginning students find it terribly confusing, particularly since iodine (I) and chlorine (Cl) often occur together in compounds.

By Robert Parson (not verified) on 05 Jun 2014 #permalink

Since I've been vocal about my hate of Comic Sans, to the point of explicitly telling my students to never use it in a presentation I will grade, I'll comment.

There are two reasons, one practical, and one observed from 15 years of colloquia, astronomy and SPIE conferences (I'm Fermi-guessing over 500 talks).

The practical reason: skinny fonts or ones with serifs render badly if the video cable between the computer and the projector has a loose or intermittent connection. High contrast letters will show a 'ringing' effect off to the right, blurring out the letters and fuzzing out the serifs over a few pixels. San serif fonts usually keep their contrast in this case.

The second reason is purely personal. If someone is using Comic Sans, there's a high chance that the original slide was written over ten years ago, or that they're an optical engineer using some default Powerpoint slide format. In both cases, the signal to noise of the slide is typically low, either because (a) the slide is now out of date and was copied in haste from a much older presentation or (b) it has accreted so many 'corrections' and amendments over the years that it is indecipherable and should be rewritten anew.

Of course this doesn't hold true in all cases - I have seen excellent talks rendered in Comic Sans. But they are very few and far between.

By Matthew Kenworthy (not verified) on 07 Jun 2014 #permalink

Some interesting comments here. Just as a point of communication, you want to fit form with function as much as possible. But to quote my old production teacher, there's no point in slicing baloney with a micrometer. So while I'm a little tired of STEM types who treat design as trivial, frankly a lot of type controversy is driven by font snobs who simply have their eyes on winning awards for their art work.

Rather than being rule driven, I'm always taking a hard look at the elements I'm working with, weighing their impact, and asking myself if there's a better way to put them together-- keeping in mind that the audience may not be entirely conscious of why the work benefits from those choices even though they will have a better experience because of them. That is: up to a point. There's a law of diminishing returns for your efforts. Frankly I've worked with professional artists who don't grasp some of the finer points.

It's a judgement call.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 08 Jun 2014 #permalink

You can also think of the question in terms of tone as analogous to music, where it can make or break a piece. It makes the difference between sounding professional or amateur... or even indifferent and uncaring. It also carries meaning. For instance, under most circumstances you wouldn't play the Moonlight Sonata on calliope and saxophone even if they can be distinctly heard in the back rows.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 09 Jun 2014 #permalink