Serifs. What's the point?

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Randy Jones's picture
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Serifs. What's the point?
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Hello all.

As I learn and read more about type design, one area of continued interest for me is the lowly/mighty [[serif]]. It's always facinating to me to see what aspect of their function authors highlight.

For example: Counterpunch by Fred Smeijers
On pages 30-32 (and elsewhere) he talks about how serifs promote good word image by defining the space between letters and the counters within letters. This helps designers as we try to balance the internal and external space. Smeijers suspects it helps readers too ...

I'd like to do a comprehensive read on the topic. Can you recommend credible books or other resources that give insight here?

Thanks,
Randy

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Randy, your subject line lead me to believe something different. :^P I thought you were going to go on and on about why there is no reason for serifs.

I don't have that book here at work, but doesn't it have a bibliography? That might be a good place to start. In fact, any of type book worth reading should have a good -- at least decent -- bibliography.

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There are a number of good articles dealing with the role of serifs in Gunnar Swanson's collection of essays Graphic Design & Reading

...promote good word image by defining the space between letters and the counters within letters.

For open bowls (counters) yes. Either Fred's terminology is innacurate, or you may have paraphrased rather than quoting. Strictly speaking only fully closed bowls contain counters. But that's a hard-edged technical definition I suspect some tpyographers might dispute.

j a m e s

Randy Jones's picture
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Tiffany: Yes is does have a bibliography of sorts (a "literature" section about cutting punches). I'll troll through to see if any would be worth following up on for my purposes.

James: Thanks for the book. Re: Terminology. I was paraphrasing, but he does call them open and closed counters for what it's worth. Regardless, we understand what he means.

david h's picture
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Catich Edward - The Origin of the Serif (1968, 1991)

William Berkson's picture
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As I have written before, the studies I have heard about I believe do not take into account the difference between readability and legibility. I just noticed that Walter Tracy's wonderful Letters of Credit includes a section—p. 30-32—discussing the distinction, in exactly the same terms as I have done here. Many of the best type designers, including Tracy—whose book summarizes centuries of type lore—routinely operate with this distinction.

To test for readability, ease of reading extended text with comfort and comprehension, it is necessary to test reading for extended periods. I have suggested using timed SAT reading exams in various settings, and seeing how comprehension and speed and self-reported fatigue vary.

In typography literature, it is common held that sans serifs need more leading for optimal setting. And this is probably because serifs act to define the base line to the eye more easily. This would be one advantage, but I think there are others. But I think we will only get the real information if the distinction between readability and legibility is acknowledged, and tests are done on reading extended text.

This is a big gap in testing, I think. Kevin has referred to a 1948 book that is I believe the only one to test with this kind of goal. But it has never been repeated, and I strongly suspect that its methodology was flawed. It is long past time to do some good testing on extended text, on paper.

Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
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"Kevin has referred to a 1948 book…"

Reference? I can't seem to find him mention this within this thread.

Kevin Larson's picture
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> … serifs act to define the base line to the eye more easily.

I think this is an interesting hypothesis that I think should be investigated. If a student is interested in picking this up as a masters or PhD project, I would be happy to partner with them on this. This is the only argument I’ve heard that predicts a difference between legibility and readability.

To my knowledge there is no evidence that there is any difference between legibility and readability. Models of reading assume the word recognition is serial. We read one word, then our attention and sometimes eye fixation moves to the next word, and we read that word. If we read words one at a time with no interaction from the previous word, then legibility and readability are the same thing. If serifs can act to improve the saccade accuracy, then there is a clear interaction between the previous word and the word that you are currently reading.

John Hudson's picture
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Bill, I'm not blaming scientific method for anything, I'm defending it against intrusion of anecdotal evidence. There are things that science seeks deliberately to exclude, because including these things will distort results and make conclusions logically untenable. It isn't a fault of science to sweep anecdotal evidence into a corner, as Hrant suggested. Of course it is a fault if science excludes something that is verifiable observation, but that's not anecdotal evidence.

Nick Shinn's picture
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Nobody said science is easy.

No, that would typography.
Tests have proven that Arial outperforms other fonts, for fresher, cleaner pages, at less cost.

Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
Joined: 22 Oct 2006 - 10:49pm
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Another one for the list:

De Lange, R. W., Esterhuizen, H. L. & Beatty, D. (1993). Performance differences between Times and Helvetica in a reading task. Electronic Publishing, 6(3), 241–248.

(with an unfortunate failure to counterbalance the order in which Ss were exposed to the two different typefaces)

John Hudson's picture
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Kevin: If serifs can act to improve the saccade accuracy, then there is a clear interaction between the previous word and the word that you are currently reading.

What do you make of Mark van Rossum's study, Kevin? It suggests a role for serifs in strengthening the terminals of extenders in the parafovea, illustrating how in a blurred state the extenders of sans serif letters are less well defined. This implies a possible role for serifs in saccade accuracy and also, I would think, for word recognition at the edges of a fixation and, hence, a reduction of regressions.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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> Type design is more interesting and complicated than that.

Not least because so is readability.

And as a result, so must the testing also be.

> serifs act to define the base line to the eye more easily.

This cannot hold water. Linespacing already does that. If the linespacing is inadequate, no length of serif will help. The baseline is purely aesthetic.

hhp

Peter Enneson's picture
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Morris, Robert A. Kathy Aquilante, Charles Bigelow, and Dean Yager. 2002. Serifs slow rsvp reading at very small sizes, but don’t matter at larger sizes. Society for Information Display International Symposium Digest of Technical Papers, P-13.

On this account serifs affect performance at thresholds of performance differently than they affect performance on plateaus. If we were to relate legibility to performance at thresholds and readability to performance on plateaus, the above might be enough to motivate the making of a distinction, and an investigation of how serifs effect the size of the plateua, especially under manipulations of spacing.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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Test results are moot when the testing is fatally flawed.

And RSVP?! Let's get real, guys.

hhp

David Berlow's picture
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Did that mean they have more data for us? ;)

Cheers!

John Hudson's picture
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Hrant: This cannot hold water. Linespacing already does that. If the linespacing is inadequate, no length of serif will help.

But Bill's larger hypothesis is that adequate linespacing is different for serif type than for sans serif type. That hypothesis might be true even if his comment re. ‘defining the baseline’ is not.

Personally, I don't think it's about the baseline, but about what happens at the end of extenders, and I can imagine how the presence of horizontal serif elements better define the upper and lower limits of a line of text, allowing for tighter adequate linespacing. [Adequate linespacing means, to me, linespacing that prevents one line of text optically interfering with another during reading.]

Peter Enneson's picture
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“Btw, what is the anecdotal evidence about the point of serifs?” [Kevin]

To my mind anecdotal evidence is things that get passed along in stories or short reports based on lived or schooled (conditioned) experience.

A Noordzijian might say serifs make an important contribution to the consolidation of the word image. Hrant might say serifs play an important role in the formation of robust and distinctive boumas. I might say serifs frustrate recognition-by-parts in word reading, where recognition by parts is seen. [Recognition-by-parts is a well-specified approach to recognition which contrasts recognition “through a single combining of features over the whole object” with a “separate combining [of features] over each of several regions of the object.” {Denis Pelli] In the case of words the regions are defined by letters.]

Of course serifs also affect what Kevin and others call personality, and I define as a font’s gestural-atmospheric niche.

Kevin, is this something you can work with in science?

David Berlow's picture
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>Btw, what is the anecdotal evidence about the point of serifs? It’s not clear to me if there is one consensus about the purpose of serifs, or if every typophiler has different anecdotal evidence?

The consensus of anecdotal horrors points to the fact that serif fonts contain more information than san serif.
But, apparently, one could much more easily answer the question by asking why sans is used at all.

Cheers!

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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> adequate linespacing is different for serif type than for sans serif type.

If this is true, I think it must be due to serifs on extenders helping to form better boumas (as opposed to better defining virtual horizontal lines).

hhp

William Berkson's picture
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I agree with Peter's theory that serifs help promote recognition by the assembly of parts over the whole word, rather than letter by letter, with a look up.

However, because serifs affect spacing and color, one can argue that they help put the letter in a better place for rhythm in the word, and so would help letter recognition even in a letter-first theory. How tight the rhythm is can be detected in Fourier transform pictures, so the rhythm in sans and in serifs could be compared this way. That test could be done now.

Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
Joined: 22 Oct 2006 - 10:49pm
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Starting with:

Patterson, D. G., Tinker, M. A. (1932a). Studies of typographical factors influencing speed of reading: X. Style of type face. Journal of Applied Psychology, 16(6), 605–613.

I find that they reference:

Roethlin, B. E. (1912). The Relative Legibility of Different Faces of Printing Types. American Journal of Psychology, 23, 1–36.

Who in turn references:

Koopman, H. L. (1909). Scientific Tests of Types. The Printing Art, XIII, 81-83.

Has anyone found a primary source for the typographic convention which claims "serifs are easier to read than sans" on which these studies are based?

Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
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I have not heard of Fourier transform pictures so I gave them a brief search and came up with several different results. For the discussion, can you please define what you mean by "Fourier transform pictures" and "rhythm."

I am intrigued by your statement "That test could be done now."

William Berkson's picture
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Christopher, Peter Enneson who I've learned about this from, so perhaps he can give some links and/or pictures.

By the way, the other texts, of extended reading using timed SAT reading tests with different fonts and layouts can also be done, now.

Actually, I've got a lot more, now :)

ps What the Fourier transforms might identify are differences in rhythm between sans and serifs. It wouldn't in itself say that there are readability differences. I think that narrower sans will be more similar in rhythm to serifs than are wide ones.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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There is no strong empirical evidence yet. Kevin has to assume for the sake of argument that serifs help (because of the persistent anecdotal evidence) and then devise rock-solid testing that proves or disproves it.

Nobody besides Kevin has the combination of resources and insight.

----

Today, learn about the Armenian Genocide.

hhp

Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
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Perhaps a piece of typographic history akin to quoting Frederic Goudy for saying "Anyone who would letterspace blackletter would steal sheep."

Kevin Larson's picture
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> What do you make of Mark van Rossum's study, Kevin?

I like that van Rossum starts from knowledge of the visual system and attempts to build a model. I’ve been working with the S-CIELAB model of the human visual system to do something similar. An improvement of the S-CIELAB model over using Gaussian blur is that the human visual system is more sensitive to some spatial frequencies that others. We are particularly sensitive to 3-5 cycles per degree. If this improvement was added to van Rossum’s blurring, I believe that you would find that small features like serifs disappear more quickly in the parafovea.

This could also be tested more directly by conducting a letter legibility test in the fovea and parafovea. If serifs strengthen the terminals of extenders in the parafovea than we should expect that the serifs perform relatively better in the parafovea than in the fovea. It would be better to use a serif and sans serif face that match like in the Bigelow study rather than comparing four typefaces that differ on many dimensions.

John Hudson's picture
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I'm not aware of a primary source for this claim, Christopher.
___

Have you read Mark van Rossum's paper ‘A new test of legibility’ (Quærendo 27/2, 1997)? A report on his study is available on his website. See the last page of the PDF for the illustration of the possible serif effect in the parafovea (I say possible because what the illustration shows is a gaussian simulation of parafoveal blur, so the actual effect might be different).

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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> I like that van Rossum starts from knowledge of the visual system

The best way would be to start from a knowledge of the visual system coupled to anecdotal evidence. Ignoring anecdotal evidence is unscientific.

> small features like serifs disappear more quickly in the parafovea.

Which is why they need to be big enough to "bind" letters together into boumas.

> letter legibility test

If you mean testing the legibility of individual letters in both the fovea and parafovea:
1) I'm pretty sure that's been done, IIRC by Herman Bouma himself.
2) It's largely moot because: that's not what we really read; and serifs cannot play their role without multiple things to bind.

> It would be better to use a serif and sans serif face that match

Indeed. But determining proper letterspacing compensation for lack/presence of serifs is non-trivial.

hhp

Christopher Timothy Dean's picture
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Thanks for the reference John. I have not read this one yet.

(I'm pretty sure I have asked this before, but what is the syntax to make it so that a link downloads a PDF the way you did?)

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I just did a straight href link to the PDF file. I think how that is interpreted depends on your browser and on Acrobat. When I click the link, the PDF opens in my browser.

William Berkson's picture
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I don't have time to do this discussion justice, but just a point of clarification.

I believe that a problem with too little leading is that the eye has problems in holding to the line, and/or in jumping correctly from one line to the next. That is, with too little leading the eye will mistakenly move to the wrong line, either while reading a line or when moving from one line to the next line. It may also tax the reader to hold his or her eye on the line.

If this is correct, it should be possible to detect with eye tracking equipment, if I understand what that does.

The view about leading with sans, which I have read in many places and is not my own—though I accept it—is that "too little" leading happens at a greater distance between lines than it would with a comparable serif.

I think that this is by no means the only advantage of serifs. Another important one has to do with maintaining both even color and good spacing between letters—which in tern affect ease of visual word formation.

>To my knowledge there is no evidence that there is any difference between legibility and readability.

That's because the testing on extended reading hasn't been done. Not a good reason not to try.

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>But determining proper letterspacing compensation for lack/presence of serifs is non-trivial.

Maybe, but we do it every single day along with determining proper height, weight and other compensations not only for lack/presence of serifs, but everything in between serif and sans.

Cheers!

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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>> To my knowledge there is no evidence that there is
>> any difference between legibility and readability.
> That's because the testing on extended reading hasn't been done.

Bingo.

David: Sure, but [somebody like] Kevin would have to do it empirically. So I guess that means optimal letterspacing would have to be empirically established for a given font, and then that font could be compared to a sans/serif "counterpart" (which has also been letterspacing-optimized).

hhp

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John Hudson's picture
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Kevin: If this improvement was added to van Rossum’s blurring, I believe that you would find that small features like serifs disappear more quickly in the parafovea.

The serifs disappear as features in van Rossum's gaussian blur too, but what is interesting is what they leave behind in terms of a more strongly defined extender. In the sans serif example, the extenders are badly compromised by the blur, whereas in the serif example the serifs are lost but the overall extender remains much stronger than in the sans serif. The more you have to lose, the more remains. I'd like to see the same kind of comparision with your S-CIELAB model

On a practical design level, I've been experimenting with ways to visually strengthen the ends of extenders other than with serifs.

John Hudson's picture
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Hrant: Ignoring anecdotal evidence is unscientific.

What do you understand to be meant by ‘anecdotal evidence’?

It's a phrase that we throw around pretty loosely here -- me included --, but if we're going to start making statements like this one of yours, then we need to be more rigorous in our usage.

Don McCahill's picture
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Is this some kind of game, where we find a four year old thread and suddenly revive it? Cause I really don't want to play.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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There is no expiration date on quality discussion.
And closure is a cozy, over-rated illusion.

Anyway, I have to ask: who signed you up?

hhp

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"A literature review by Alex Poole."

Thanks, Christopher!

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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I try to be pretty rigorous. To me "anecdotal evidence" here specifically refers to the belief -resulting from trying and failing- that setting a book in a sans makes it harder to read.

hhp

John Hudson's picture
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Ah. Maybe you want a different term then. Anecdotal evidence usually refers to something that is either unverifiable or which cannot be be used to logically reach the conclusion presented. As such, true anecdotal evidence should not only be ignored by science but needs to be systematically excluded from scientific experiment and from conclusions based on experiment.

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On a practical design level, I've been experimenting with ways to visually strengthen the ends of extenders other than with serifs.

Neo-cuneiform!

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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John, I don't see "anecdotal" as being so negative, and now that I double-checked it really doesn't have to equate to unverifiable* and certainly not untenable. But anyway, now that I've explained what I mean: I hope you agree; and feel free to suggest a term you consider better.

* Very difficult to verify, sure.

hhp

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Hrant, the term "anecdotal evidence" is generally used as a term of disapproval for evidence that is of dubious value, or used improperly, as the [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anecdotal_evidence|wikipedia article on it]] explains. However, another thing is "observation reports," which science actually is obliged to account for in one way or another.

The fact that many expert typographers see sans as needing more leading is something that any complete reading theory should account for, eventually. To blow it off as "anecdotal" would be unscientific, in my view. Because you can show many people the same examples of leading, and get the same kind of reaction as to which is best.

This doesn't mean that people can't interpret their observations wrongly, but if so the theory needs to explain why and how the mistake is made systematically.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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It looks like the construct "anecdotal evidence" is indeed negative. But "anecdotal" is fine, and very pertinent. So maybe "anecdotal reporting"?

BTW, it's very unfortunate -but telling- that Formal Science has driven the concept of the anecdotal into such a corner. I guess it's just not convenient to be reminded how narrow and limited one's research is, so Formal Science makes all anecdotalism negative...

hhp

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The standard in science is of "inter-subjective testability" (Popper). In the case of experimental results, it means that others can and do repeat the experiment and get the same result. That has been around as a standard of scientific method since Robert Boyle in the 17th century. In the case of a one time observation, it is helpful if many people see it, if they are reliable witnesses, if someone takes a picture, etc, as evidence would be tested in a court of law.

In the case of this typographic stuff, it is all repeatable, and repeated. "Reports of expert observers" should work.

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>Serifs. What's the point?

Succinctly put, thanks.

They have data for us.

Cheers!

John Hudson's picture
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Hrant, I understand the feeling that science somehow misses things that might seem obvious to experience, but this is not a fault in science, though; rather, it is what distinguishes science as a method. I've often found myself thinking this or that experiment is failing to take into account something that seems to me important, but I'm usually at a loss to consider how the experiment could have taken it into account. Science has to proceed in its method, and while we can and should acknowledge that there are things about which science might not be able to enlighten us, we shouldn't expect science to be other than it is.

John Hudson's picture
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Regarding whether extended sans serif text is harder to read than serif, I think it will be difficult to first get past the issue people may not want to read extended sans serif text.

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The term anecdotal evidence gives me the heeby jeebys. I most strongly associate it with the wide variety of snake oil medicine sold in the United States. All of these snake oils (airborne, homeopathy, acupuncture, chelaton therapy) have anecdotal evidence that supports that their treatment works. People try something, feel better, and report that the medicine works. Of course some people didn’t feel better, and we don’t report that. And some of the people that did feel better might have felt better had they done nothing. None of these treatments are more effective than a placebo under controlled tests.

Observations about the world are the first step of the scientific method. Of course observations should be used to guide tests, but the scientific method is a far more powerful truth finder than anecdotal evidence. Evidence about reading performance from measuring 30 people reading is far more likely to accurately represent reading performance than one person’s observation.

Btw, what is the anecdotal evidence about the point of serifs? It’s not clear to me if there is one consensus about the purpose of serifs, or if every typophiler has different anecdotal evidence?