Serifs. What's the point?

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William Berkson's picture
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Joined: 26 Feb 2003 - 11:00am
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>this is not a fault in science

No, it is a fault in the science if it fails to account for observation. That's what is the task of science. If it plods along not addressing these issues, that's weak science. Don't blame scientific method. The real thing has imagination and verve.

Peter Enneson's picture
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Joined: 21 Mar 2005 - 1:17pm
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“Reports of expert observers” should work. [Bill]

Maybe for reading it should be “experiential reports of engaged and motivated readers.”

This is different from “typographical craft wisdom.”

The trouble with both is we don't know how much of it is conditioning.

The other side of the conditioning issue is to what degree is typographical and type-design history guided by the the hidden hand of ‘what the reading body needs’ in material or hard-wired terms.

We are still, I believe, a long ways from a grounded understanding of the perceptual processing impacts of manipulating type-form micro-variables. Are our current measures on the order of trying to weigh gemstones on a bathroom scale?

David Berlow's picture
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Joined: 19 Jul 2004 - 6:31pm
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>Are our current measures on the order of trying to weigh gemstones on a bathroom scale?

Generous of you. Helium atoms and truck scales come to mind.

Cheers!

William Berkson's picture
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>we don't know how much of it is conditioning

Nobody said science is easy. It's job is to sort out the causes. And yes, I also agree the proper measures—I would say tests—haven't been there. I've proposed some other tests, such as level of proof reading mistakes, and the extended reading tests with speed comprehension comfort variables that I mentioned above, but they haven't been tried.

John Hudson's picture
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Joined: 21 Dec 2002 - 11:00am
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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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Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am
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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.

Kevin Larson's picture
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Joined: 11 Aug 2004 - 12:47am
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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?

Chris Lozos's picture
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Joined: 25 Feb 2004 - 11:00am
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Catich in his book "Origin of the Serif" gives a compelling case for how the serif came about. It had nothing to do with readability. Every other thing written in the "helps carry the line" venture is pure conjecture. The serif may or may not play a role in readability but I have seen absolutely nothing that convinces me either way.

http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Serif-Brush-Writing-Letters/dp/0962974005

John Hudson's picture
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Joined: 21 Dec 2002 - 11:00am
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Kevin: None of these treatments are more effective than a placebo under controlled tests.

Although apparently one study found that fake acupucture, in which the subject believed needles were being inserted into his back when, in fact, they were not, is more effective than a placebo pill. As a former naturopath whom I know put it: not acupuncture is more effective than not medicine.

John Hudson's picture
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Joined: 21 Dec 2002 - 11:00am
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Chris, the origin of the serif is independnet of any function(s) it might have in reading.

As a parallel: the contrast of thin and thick strokes in type has its origin in the characteristics of the broad nib pen, but that's independent of the effect of such contrast on spatial frequency.

William Berkson's picture
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>Observations about the world are the first step of the scientific method.

According to Popper the first step of scientific method is not to observe, but to recognize a problem, something to be explained. Then come tentative theories to explain what is unexplained. Then come observations and experiments to test the theories. The most powerful observations and experiments distinguish between competing theories, corroborating some and contradicting others. The new observations and experiments lead to new problems, and so on.

The difference in starting point is not trivial. Plenty of science done today is too "inductive" in method, as Popper calls it, thinking that accumulating observations without a strong focus of problems and theories will help. This is particularly notable in the social sciences, but also in psychology. It leads to a confusing welter of data that nobody can make sense of.

Chris Lozos's picture
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Joined: 25 Feb 2004 - 11:00am
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"the origin of the serif is independnet of any function(s) it might have"

I was not concluding otherwise. I was just trying to answer Kevin's question: "It’s not clear to me if there is one consensus about the purpose of serifs"

Purpose is viewable in many ways. If I say the purpose of the serif was for the expedience of the ancient Roman craftsman in painting or cutting letters, I am still answering his question. My point is that no one set out for the purpose of serifs to aid in readability. Their use has come about in history for other reasons so why would anyone assume that they surely must aid in reading text? There is no reason to assume serifs have this function and there is no clear evidence to show that they help readability even unknowingly. The tests have some minimal data that may make it possible to say certain roman typefaces may perform better at sustained reading than sans serifs but it has not been proven that the deciding factor is the serifs or some other difference between the typefaces such as contrast may be the reason.

William Berkson's picture
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>no clear evidence to show that they help readability even unknowingly.

I think there is evidence that points to the superior readability of serifs in extended printed text, even though it is not conclusive and is arguable.

We have had sans around for over 150 years, and for 50 in widespread use for text. Yet print publishers and readers have stubbornly resisted sans for extended text. You really have to look to find a newspaper or novel or even textbook set in sans. A it is not like it hasn't been tried, repeatedly. For example in the early 20th century a lot of Germans wanted to go to sans, rather than either to stick with blackletter or go to "antiqua" serifs. There was a whole modernist push for sans, and it has been accepted for display and short text, but not for extended text.

Now you might just put this down to the conservatism of readers, but this has been true across diverse cultures, changing fashions, and a long period of time. To me, this argues for a perceptual basis. I have mentioned some of the theories, which to me are plausible, but not proven.

And I do think that the right tests—and those I have proposed might well work—would reveal the superiority.

I could be wrong, of course, but it's not like there's no prima face case here. There is.

John Hudson's picture
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Joined: 21 Dec 2002 - 11:00am
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Bill, when Kevin wrote that ‘observations about the world are the first step of the scientific method’ I took him to mean something akin to Popper's ‘recognition of a problem, something to be explained’, i.e. that he wasn't referring to observation in the in-method sense, but in the more general sense of looking at the world -- reality external to the mind -- and seeing things that want explaining.

Peter Enneson's picture
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Joined: 21 Mar 2005 - 1:17pm
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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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Joined: 19 Jul 2004 - 6:31pm
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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!

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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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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Joined: 26 Feb 2003 - 11:00am
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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.