My Photo
Location: Bellevue, Washington, United States

Nathan is both a writer and designer of books and eBooks and is part-owner of boutique publisher Long Tale Press, LLC. He is available to help make your eBook or Book publishing project come alive with great book design.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

To Serif or Not To Serif...

I love the quote from Herb Lubalin regarding Helvetica typeface (on which Swiss, Arial and Geneva are based):

“It is easier for Europeans to use Helvetica. It’s very difficult for Americans. We can appeal to big corporate executives with Helvetica and to stockholders who read annual reports, but for the great masses of Americans we cannot do that. There are over two hundred typefaces in the world for the masses, and then there is Helvetica. Helvetica is for designers, design students, design instructors, and a few intellectuals and clients, and for the population of Switzerland.”

What Lubalin points out with his tongue-in-cheek witticism is that readability is largely cultural in nature. Why else would Europeans—and especially the population of Switzerland—have an easier time with the sans serif font? If you stop to look at the wider ramifications of the thesis that serif type is easier to read than sans serif, you find how ridiculous that is when you are dealing with Arabic, Chinease, Kanji, Korean, Hebrew or other non-western scripts. We find it easiest to read what we are used to reading.

I believe that today Lubalin would find a much wider audience for Helvetica based simply on its commonness (in one or more of the variants above) on computers. In fact, those who are using computers at young ages may even show an affinity to Helvetica akin to that of the Swiss. Compare that to their parents who learned to read paper books printed in New Century Schoolbook (serif typeface).

So, I hold that there is no definitive evidence that validates the generalization that serif type is easier to read than sans serif. I do, however, believe that in keeping with the credo first stated in my October 7 posting below (the purpose of design is to communicate) the savvy designer will choose a typeface that is comfortable for the majority of his or her audience in order to ensure optimum readability.


Post a Comment

<< Home