Type faces for readability

Remember that the object of the exercise is to get your copy read.

You may have other considerations — perhaps the style, the "look-and-feel" of your document is very important. You may decide to choose a typeface and layout that isn't so easy to read but which more than compensates by creating a specific image.

That is a decision that you have to make. We'll revisit this topic in later Hints and Tips but for now we're looking at the basic question of typeface.

In this section I'm going to ignore style considerations and go all out for readability.

Serif/Sans serif

We can split typefaces into two broad groups, serif and sans serif.

These groups sub-divide and overlap when we get into a more sophisticated analysis but the distinction holds good for most purposes.

Firstly the definitions:

This is a serif S and this is a sans serif S

Serif type has "hands and feet" — serifs — on the ends of the strokes and the characters are made up of both thick and thin strokes.

Sans serif type has no serifs — hence the name — and the characters are made up of lines of constant thickness.

Common serif typefaces include Times Roman, Garamond, Palatino, Bookman and New Century Schoolbook although there are over a thousand all together.

Common sans serif typefaces are Helvetica, Switzerland and Arial — which all have the same origins — Avant Garde, Gill Sans, Univers and Futura. There are over fifteen hundred sans serif type faces available.

Printed material

Research has shown time and again that text set in a serif typeface is more easily read, comprehended and remembered — and isn't that what you want?

Do your own research: take any novel from your bookshelf or look at your newspaper. It's printed in a serif typeface because the publisher wants it to be easily read, comprehended and remembered.

There are two schools of thought as to why serif typefaces are easier to read: one says that there are mechanical features to the characters that draw the eye through, connecting one letter to the next and giving the words a distinct appearance and the other school of thought says it's nothing to do with that, it's simply that we've had more practice reading serif typefaces.

If your readers have difficulty reading, either because of poor eyesight or they're simply not very good at reading, then the speed at which the text can be read is less important.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind recommends a 50% increase in type size and a sans serif typeface because it's uncluttered by those features that help the rest of us but which disrupt the clarity of the line for those who have trouble with reading.

On-screen reading

The qualities that define the serif typefaces are lost when they are displayed at body copy size on a screen.

This is because once you're below around 14 point — it depends on your screen resolution — the pixels that make up the characters are bigger than the thinner lines and the fine serifs. So the serifs appear disproportionately large and there's no distinction between the thick and thin strokes.

If that's the case, we're better off going for a typeface that was designed to have no distinction between the strokes and which doesn't have serifs that will become distorted — in other words, use a sans serif for on-screen reading.

That's why the dialogue boxes in your software are in Arial — so why does Microsoft set the default on web browsers to Times Roman? If you're building a web site, use a sans serif and if you're looking at web sites, change your browser default font to Arial — you'll see a remarkable improvement in legibility.

But I like sans serif for body copy

It may be that you want the clean, high-tech, forward-looking style of the sans serifs and you feel that they reflect your cutting-edge modern image.

Here are a few tips for using sans serif for body copy.

Increase the type size by 1 point and make it just that bit bigger and clearer.

Add an extra point of white space between the lines of type. This opens up the gap between the lines so that the letter shapes — produced by characters with ascenders (b, d, f, h, k, l, t) and descenders (g, j, p, q, y) — are more easily recognized.

Use a typeface like Optima designed by Herman Zapf — the man who brought you Zapf Dingbats — as a halfway-house sort of type. It has thick and thin strokes but no serifs and it attempts to combine the cleanliness of sans serif with the legibility of serif typefaces. The TrueType font "Ottowa" is a close match for Optima.

Ascenders, descenders and x-heights

Ordinary x-height characters — so called because they're the height of an x — make up just over half of the alphabet (a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z). It's the ascenders and descenders that give words their shape and which help fluent readers to recognize whole words rather than building them from individual letters.

Choose a typeface with a clear distinction between x-hight characters and others — look at the difference between a and d or between b and p. If the ascenders and descenders are not distinct, some letters which depend on them for their unique characteristics can become confused.

At the other extreme are typefaces with very a big difference between x-height and other characters. This causes the x-height characters to be proportionally rather small — Times Roman is a bit that way, if the print quality is reduced, say in a fax or photocopy, the e starts to look like a c.

Times Roman was designed to fit a lot of text on a newspaper column and Stanley Morison, who designed it in 1931, achieved this by reducing the x-height; if you use Times Roman a lot, set it one or two points larger than other typefaces.


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