Why use a sans-serif for printed media if a serif has highest readability?

gillmank's picture

So I've just redesigned a publication of ours where I work and opted to use Helvetica for the body text as it looks so much smoother and, in my opinion, much more contemporary than their current use of Adobe Garamond Pro.

However, I was approached today by my superior who told me that his wife (whom is a copy editor) "had a lot of issues with using Helvetica and not a serif font for print."

While serifs ARE easier for readability sake on print media, I'm a bit surprised that she seems to be unaware with how many people are using Helvetica to reach out to a plethora of audiences. Our publication would reach mostly (but not only) those in their 40's-50's, and I can understand if this is where she's frustrated, but neither of those age groups are so old that they couldn't read a SOO commonly used font.

What are your guys' thoughts? Why are so many publications using Helvetica, Akzidenz, etc, if studies show readability for printed media is best when found in serif? I wonder what the greater percentage of readability is for a serif? I'd like to have an informed answer for her.

Thanks!

Nick Shinn's picture

Helvetica is more recently designed than Garamond, but it is still a 19th century grot.
Both Helvetica and Adobe Garamond have currency, acquired through reputation, bundling, and subsequent heavy usage.
The downside of their success—they have become bland and generic.
Why not use a truly contemporary serif design?

neither of those age groups are so old that they couldn't read a SOO commonly used font.

The issue is not familiarity, but failing eyesight.
Helvetica’s tight fit and similarity of shapes (e.g. a, e and s) make it hard to read if a bit out of focus.

Chris Dean's picture

While serifs ARE easier for readability sake on print media…

There are no published studies that come to mind which supports this claim with any significant degree of confidence. The “serifs are easier to read than san-serifs” adage is based largely on anecdotal wisdom and convention.

@gillmank: For the purpose of this discussion, in your context, how do you define “readability” and “print media?”

gillmank's picture

Chris,

Here's where I feel a bit of tension.

I work at a religious congregation. We are hoping to attract younger members because we are mostly 40s,50s,60s+. We have 30s, but they aren't attracted to the stuff we have. I want to hit that audience, too.

"Readability" was based upon how others are defining it. I guess, for me, wording is easier to read when I'm not distracted by the font. Many serifs look distracting to me because I identify them with writing papers. All the papers we ever had to write were in serifs. They look old and tired to me, except for the more contemporary ones which I'm not sure we have the money to spend on it, BUT I would love some suggestions for some contemporary ones. I have Museo slab at 500, but a thinner weight might look nice. Or a thinner weight of Mido (only have medium...).

"Print media", for us, is specifically our monthly newsletter.

gillmank's picture

"Helvetica is more recently designed than Garamond, but it is still a 19th century grot."
Yep. Wasn't referring to the time it was made, but the way it looks. Garamond, to me, screams old-fashioned.

"Why not use a truly contemporary serif design?"
Would LOVE some suggestions!!

"The issue is not familiarity, but failing eyesight.
Helvetica’s tight fit and similarity of shapes (e.g. a, e and s) make it hard to read if a bit out of focus."

Thanks for that explanation!

Thanks for commenting, Nick!

hrant's picture

Young people have to read too. It has little to do with failing eyesight. Readability is not essentially determined by familiarity. Helvetica has low readability (mostly due to its overly-tight spacing, but also for the paucity of its extenders). Plus it's overused, especially by mega-corporations (that don't even like religion :-). It's the first font you should totally avoid. Well, after Arial. :-)

Garamond is indeed too old-fashioned (here and in general) but don't blame the serifs. If you want a sans that's highly readable, use Legato. But probably the wife won't let you, so look for a contemporary serif font - there are tons of them.

And anecdotal wisdom trumps poorly conceived and executed field testing any day.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

Helvetica or Arial as text fonts on screen and in print are two different animals. I like the late Paul Rand's view, who told an assistant not to use Helvetica in text. When asked, "Why?" He replied "because it looks like dogshit in text."

In general, I think it is clear that serifs are better for extended text in print, even though there is no scientific proof of it. Certainly, the vote of publishers and readers has gone that way, even though sans have been fully accepted in headings.

Aside from the question of the aesthetic look you want, Adobe Garamond in my opinion has problems at smaller sizes. Garamond Premier, which has optical sizes, has a beautiful text size.

It you want something fresher in the same general line as Garamond, look at the wonderful new Agmena

I admit Paul Rand's view has to be modified somewhat now because of Neue Haas Grotesk. Christian Schwartz did a text size, which can work nicely in short texts at relatively small sizes. But as I say, I don't think any sans is appropriate for extended text.

The problem here is that the notion of 'readability' is confused. I think the appropriate notion is in terms of ease or comfort in reading, and there I think in extended text, a very good serif will win the race.

Nick Shinn's picture

Hrant, it is very much an age issue.
If the type is out of focus and the letters blur and coalesce, which us what happens when the lenses in one's eyes become less elastic, then Helvetica presents problems of a different order to those experienced by young people who are reading it with distinct letters in focus.

hrant's picture

Nick, I do agree it gets worse with age, but since I believe most reading happens in the -blurry- parafovea for any adult, as we say in American: same difference.

And to answer a previous question of Kristen's: Why do so many people use Helvetica? 1) Because their old-fart Modernism-brainwashed design teachers adore it and they pass down the bad advice. 2) It's retro, and that's currently in.

Agmena: To me still too old-fashioned.

hhp

gillmank's picture

Thanks, everyone for the insights. I have a lot to learn it seems.

I wonder why so many publications are using sans fonts? I see it often in magazines.

Agmena does look a bit too old-fashioned for me as well. hrant, you said there are many fresh serifs you know of. Which do you specifically mean? I'd love to check em out.

Museo Slab is one of the most beautiful serifs I've seen in awhile. But, it looks more appealing as a heading to me. Of course, I don't have all the weights available, so I couldn't give a fully informed opinion on body text.

Is there an article anyone knows of (besides the ones I'll find googling in the next few minutes) that can explain how the eye recognizes letter shapes and the mechanics behind that? That'd be fantastic. Very grateful for your input!

William Berkson's picture

Fedra Serif looks very modern, and works in text. Greta is also very good, though a little more traditional looking.

On Readability, you aren't going to find anything definitive. It's an issue I've been somewhat obsessed with. Here's my 7 minute talk on the subject, which starts 16 minutes into the video. Here is a typophile discussion on readability that I kicked off. Also here is an essay on how I tried to make my own text font readable.

gillmank's picture

An obssession? YESSS, then you're the best person to talk to, huh? OR...am I feeding the obsession? hmmmmm....

hahaha, thanks William. I'm excited to learn from you!

Renaissance Man's picture

While it's certainly not modern, Janson Text is eminently legible and readable.
http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/janson-text/

I recommend Kent Lew's Whitman. I own it and I love it.
http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/fontbureau/whitman/roman-lf/

"And anecdotal wisdom trumps poorly conceived and executed field testing any day."
I agree wholeheartedly.

"If you want a sans that's highly readable, use Legato."
I got it at MyFonts on sale for $50. It looked horrible in print. It has minimal kerning.

"Look at the wonderful new Agmena"
$468 for 8 fonts with no small caps?

Queneau's picture

Legato? At MyFonts? I thought FontFonts have not been available at MyFonts until very recently....

hrant's picture

Legato -having not a single straight line- probably does look bad at text sizes on a low-end Postscript-emulation printer. But you don't use an Arabian to haul coal.

hhp

R.'s picture

"Look at the wonderful new Agmena"
$468 for 8 fonts with no small caps?

No.

Renaissance Man's picture

Another $468 for 8 small caps fonts for a total of $936.

I think I'll pass.

eliason's picture

Those small caps are an OpenType feature, not additional fonts.

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