page considers the 'font wars', highlighting questions
about the readability of type for web pages and email.
It covers -
Disagreement about typography has been rumbling since
Gutenberg and flares
periodically with the introduction of new technologies
such as the rotary press or the internet. Much of that
disagreement has the fervour of religious conflict, given
subjective judgements about aesthetics, the ambiguity
of many of the empirical studies and the ignorance of
Eric Gill's 1931 An Essay on Typography claimed
that "Legibility, in practice, amounts simply to
what one is accustomed to". Zuzana Licko, co-author
with Rudy VanderLans of Emigre: Graphic Design into
the Digital Realm (New York: Wiley 1994), echoed
that assertion in suggesting that
are not intrinsically legible; rather, it is the reader's
familiarity with faces that accounts for their legibility.
Studies have shown that readers read best what they
a starting point it is useful to consider basic terminology,
although that has blurred with the emergence of 'born
In the epoch when printed text was produced using ink
on metal letters type was a generic term
for those letters.
A typeface - such as Times New Roman
or Helvetica - was a particular family of type, distinguished
by a unique design and often created by a master craftsman
such as William Caslon or Frederick Goudy.
A font (sometimes known as fount) was
initially a collection of characters of a specific size
within a specific typeface, eg capitals, small capitals
and lower case of 12pt Garamond. More recently it has
come to have the same meaning as typeface.
The Print profile
on this site features detailed pointers to the history
of typography, including works such as Anthony Cahalan's
brief paper Design & Consumption: The Proliferation
of Typefaces (PDF),
Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographical Style
(Vancouver: Hartley & Marx 1996), Counterpunch:
Making Type in the Sixteenth Century, Designing Typefaces
Now (London: Hyphen Press 1996) by Fred Smeijers,
and Stop Stealing Sheep (& Find Out How Type Works)
(Mountain View: Adobe 1993) by Erik Spiekermann &
Illuminating Letters: Typography & Literary Interpretation
(Amherst: Uni of Massachusetts Press 2001) edited
by Paul Gutjahr & Megan Benton considers how typography
affects meaning, in essays ranging from the Bible to comics.
There is extensive although uneven research about the
'readability' of online and offline fonts.
That is of interest in choosing fonts for content that
is meant to be read online and for content delivered
online for reading offline (with many users, for example,
skimming online journals on their monitor before printing
them for detailed reading).
We have pointed to particular studies - such as A Comparison
of Popular Online Fonts: Which is Best and When? (an
of research by Bernard, Mills, Peterson & Storrer), Determining
the Best Online Font for Older Adults (an account
by Bernard, Mills & Liao) and Legibility &
Comprehension of Onscreen Type: Comparing the Legibility
and Comprehension of Type Size, Font Selection and Rendering
Technology of Onscreen Type (PDF)
by Scott Chandler - in our Design Guide.
new fonts for new media?
One response to substantive/perceived online readability
problems has been the development of new fonts specifically
designed for use on the web or in special devices such
as e-book readers, automatic teller machines and standalone
Our Electronic Publishing guide
notes Microsoft's promotion of ClearType,
proprietary font display technology claimed to significantly
increase screen readability
as part of Reader software for PCs and handheld devices.
ClearType has been criticised as too rubbery, providing
insufficient protection against unauthorised copying/redistribution
- perhaps the major impediment to the growth of the electronic
Regular project has suggested that a new font would
address the needs of dyslexics (claimed
to comprise up to 10% of the UK workforce), with distinctly
different shapes for each letter, long descenders and
ascenders (the 'stems' on letters such as 'b' and 'p'),
generous line spacing and clearer openings in letters
such as 'e' and 'c' to decrease letter-reversal errors.
Many 'dyslexia-friendly' sites currently use the sans-serif
Arial typeface but this has been criticised for similar
reversable shapes (eg b and d, p and q). Microsoft has
promoted Verdana as screen-friendly but that font has
been criticised for tight line spacing and short ascenders,
with some designers accordingly preferring Trebuchet MS.
Some offline publishers have trialled the Comic Sans typeface,
often dismissed as "too whimsical" for professional
In practice there is little agreement about appropriate
solutions or compromises (or even about the application
of 'dyslexia' as a diagnostic label). Caution is therefore
desirable when assessing some of the more enthusiastic
claims about particular fonts or styles. 'Comparing
Comprehension Speeds and Accuracy of Online Information
in Students with and without Dyslexia', a paper by Sri
Kurniawan & Gerard Conroy in Advances in Universal
Web Design & Evaluation: Research, Trends & Opportunities
(Hershey: IDEA Group 2007) edited by Kurniawan & Panayiotis
Zaphiris, offers some cautions.
One pundit commented that in print "switching from
serif to sans serif body type drops good comprehension
from 67% to 12%". Ted Nicholas' Five Powerful
Techniques that Produce Unstoppable Sales proclaimed
In direct mail, headlines should be in Times-Roman font,
serif, or sans serif typefaces. The body copy should
always be Times Roman. Reason? On the written page,
it's easy to read. Never use a sans serif typeface in
On websites, the sans serif typefaces such as Arial
and Verdana seem to work best because they are more
inviting to read in a sea of cyber-clutter
presumably reflects greater legibility on low-resolution
monitors. Fred Showker more acutely commented that
days the DTP and design writers in magazines are having
a tough time coming up with things to write about. Typography
is always an easy hit, so we're continually reading
about this rule or that.
An informal 2001 study by Ralph Wilson in his Doctor Ebiz
newsletter suggests that the 'killer-app' in HTML email
messages is the font choice. Wilson believed that most
clients of his e-commerce services use use email programs
that are HTML compatible. He surveyed which fonts and
font sizes were the most readable.
Wilson's initial email contained the same text in 12 point
Times New Roman and Arial, assuming that Times New Roman
as a serif font would be preferred over the sans-serif
Arial. He claims that 1,123 of 1,643 recipients preferred
12pt Arial to 12pt Times New Roman, contrary to conventional
wisdom that readers choose serif over sans serif.
In a further test responses to Times New Roman were compared
with those to the serif Georgia, an 'online' font created
by Microsoft for greater legibility. 52% of respondents
preferred Georgia, 33% chose Times New Roman and 15% supposedly
couldn't tell the difference.
One reason, according to Wilson, is that those users did
not have the Georgia font installed. As noted elsewhere
on this site, that is grounds for caution in using HTML
rather than plain text email, along with uncertainty about
how different machines lay out a HTML message and recipient
unhappiness with fatter email files.
Perhaps sensing that he was onto a good promo opportunity,
Wilson then compared two sans serif fonts: 12pt Arial
and 12pt Verdana (this page is 'optimised' for Verdana).
53% of his respondents preferred Arial, 43% preferred
Arial and 4% couldn't tell. As font sizes became smaller
(10pt and 9pt) users shifted to Verdana but some thought
that they were simply too small to be read easily.
His conclusions, contraverted by some accessibility
studies but consistent with others, are that his readers
prefer sans serif fonts for body text, that there is an
insufficient user base among his market to justify using
Georgia and that 12pt Arial is the best option for his
The 2006 Perception of fonts: Perceived personality
traits and uses by A. Dawn Shaikh, Barbara Chaparro
& Doug Fox suggested
that 'personality traits' (cuddliness, masculinity, playfulness)
are attributed to fonts and are associated with appropriate
can have an effect on the perception of the content.
Typefaces should be chosen to reflect the message of
the content and care should be taken to ensure that
the typeface does not conflict with the intentions of
follow-up The Effect of Typeface on the Perception
of Email argued
that there is a relationship between typeface selection
and the reader's perception of email, with corporate users
accordingly being advised to avoid 'joke' fonts for business