Whether you’re designing a website, a flyer, or a novel – Serif or Sans serif is a choice that you have to make. This is a debate that designers and writers have been arguing over for years, and though there is some general consensus, for the most part it’s still debated a lot. It’s not like it used to be where your operating system had a handful of pre-installed fonts and you had to choose from there. Even after choosing whether you want serif or sans, then you have to choose one of millions of fonts available on the internet. So how do you know which one is right for you? Here are a few things to consider when making your choice.
First of all, let’s clarify a few things for anyone who isn’t sure.
What is a serif?
Simply put, a serif is the small line coming from the edges of letters and symbols. You see them in classic fonts like Garamond, and not in more modern fonts like Arial. They can be simple and angled, bold and straight, or curled and decorative. There are many different ways to make a serif, but whenever you see one, you’ll know. Serifs have been used since letters were chiseled into stone, while sans serifs only became popular in the 19th century. For that reason, serif typefaces are considered more classical, elegant and formal, while sans serif are modern and casual.
Now let’s think about a few of the arguments that come up when considering serif or sans.
Serif fonts are ultimately easier to read. This is because your eye needs to flow horizontally along a line of text, and serifs create a sort of horizontal line that joins letters together. This makes it easier and less tiring for your eye to travel from one to the next. Serifs also create more space between individual letters, so it’s easier to distinguish them. Using serifs will increase reading speed and won’t tire your eyes as quickly.
Print vs. Screen
However, this readability factor changes slightly when on the screen. It has generally been accepted that serif letters are better for print projects, while sans serif fonts are better for screens.
Text on screen needs to be scalable – whether you are working in a Word processor and changing the size of your font from 12 to 48, or you are viewing a website on both your computer and smart phone, font sizes are always changing. Sans serifs are easier to scale because the forms are simpler than serifs. If you make a serif font too small, it might begin to blur the serifs together and make it harder to read.
Printed documents have a resolution of around 1000 dots per inch (dpi) meaning that you can see detail clearer. Screens have an average resolution of only 100 dpi, just one tenth of print. Even retina displays, which are the big new thing from Apple, have a dpi of 300. So, if you used a serif font on a screen, the lack of detail might make it more difficult to distinguish between letters. For this reason, serifs are easier to read in smaller sizes, because the letters are simpler.
So what to choose?
Generally the answer is, choose whichever you like. Though serifs were thought to be for print, while sans were for screen, as technology advances, both look great in either form. Though in your process you may find that serifs are generally easier to read on screen, this is no longer the accepted rule. You can use sans serif to typeset a novel, and serif as your blog’s body font, you can even use both. You only need to consider your choices, and make sure your font choice conveys the feeling and look that you want, and that it is readable.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t want your reader to notice the font. You want them to read your text, understand the message, and not have a second thought about how it was presented to them. If they start thinking about the font, it could be because they like the font, but more often than not it’s because the font is hard to read and their eyes are getting tired. Though most readers wouldn’t consciously know this or think about it, font that is difficult to read will drive them away. Make sure that you always consider serifs or sans, but make it a decision your reader doesn’t have to think about.