why is serif still used today?

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missgiggles's picture
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why is serif still used today?
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what purpose does it convey? is there specific reasons as to why they still around after so many centuries? what kept them alive? who kept them alive and for what purpose?

Jorik Hengstmengel's picture
Joined: 16 Dec 2005 - 6:50pm
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Is there any reason not to use it?

missgiggles's picture
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just wondering how and why its lasted so long? what kept it going?

Alessandro Segalini's picture
Joined: 5 Oct 2005 - 5:14pm
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The need of spreading old good books, for example, so that Giggles can read them ?

paul d hunt's picture
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Joined: 5 May 2005 - 8:44pm
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what have you got against the poor serif, miss g? it seems that you've got a vendetta against the poor thing!

Patricia Fabricant's picture
Joined: 23 Mar 2004 - 9:40am
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Paul you read my mind. Miss G seems to be on a personal mission to do away with the serif. And didn't she already ask this question (in one way or another)

Easier to read, more formal, classic. Reading a novel or a newspaper in sans would make your eyes hurt. No matter how beautiful the font.

Patricia Fabricant's picture
Joined: 23 Mar 2004 - 9:40am
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Miss G, in addition to defending the serif which you seem so eager to consign to the dust heap of history, I'd also like to recommend you acquaint yourself with another archaic throwback to an earlier era, the Shift key. It's just to the left of the z on your keyboard. Like the serif, it can make your text more reader friendly.

John S's picture
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The initial question is a fair one, but so much research over so many years has established that the funkiness, contrast, and sheer visual interest of serifs are why they are preferred for reading. Sans-serifs overall have less variety as a species than serifs as a species. If you collect the most beautiful examples of type over the years, or just since 1970, serifs will outnumber sans-serifs by a comfortable margin. In book and magazine design, there's a reason serifs have always been preferred, though some on this board deny all that empirical evidence whenever the question comes up.

A world without serifs would be like a world condemned to sixties architecture with no relief! I'd rather die!

Peter Enneson's picture
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Joined: 21 Mar 2005 - 1:17pm
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"so much research over so many years has established that the funkiness, contrast, and sheer visual interest of serifs are why they are preferred for reading [my emphasis]"

Your sources?

Jackie Frant's picture
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Joined: 24 Feb 2005 - 9:18am
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I'll admit it - I haven't read the whole thread. But has anyone ask the question yet --

Miss Giggles - which class is this question for?

Your teachers always come up with some interesting questions for their students to ponder....

Wow - old thread... just saw that -- so the question would have been

Miss Giggles - which class was this for?

And better yet - what came out of the class discussion....?

Thomas W Phinney's picture
Joined: 3 Sep 2002 - 11:00am
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Like all other languages written with the Latin writing system (including English), Spanish is written and read left to right.

It's interesting that the non-native readers made this mistake, given that their native language is read in the same direction and has the same property of having verb conjugations that change the ending of the word (-ed, -ing, -s).

It would be much less surprising/interesting to learn that people made equivalently basic errors if there was a larger difference between their native language and the new language - as would be the case with Spanish vs Arabic or English vs Arabic.

Cheers,

T

Katharina's picture
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Joined: 21 Aug 2007 - 4:18am
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Quoting Eben:
"My pet logicalistic theory is that serifs provide extra data for the brain to use when recognizing either letters or word shapes as the case may be. The shape of a letter with serifs is more complex and there fore data rich. With a relative surplus of data perhaps recognition may be be accomplished slightly faster."

Just my personal experience leads me to trust Eben. I find that I can read even blackletter better than sans.
(No, we were not trained to read blackletter at school, and yes, I love grotesque and hope to see the day when it is politically correct to buy Akzidenz.)

Gutenburgz_1400's picture
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Using serif in a contemporary context is so terribly postmodern. We need to live in our own time. The only reason serifs are 'more legible' is because we have become accustomed to them. May they die a fiery death. Long live Helvetica Neue Bold Outline!

missgiggles's picture
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Interesting ideas come out such debates but sometimes it can get very complicated for a student like me. It wasn't a discussion in class. It was just my thoughts, nothing more. I like type a lot.

Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch's picture
Joined: 7 Feb 2007 - 10:21am
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It's not really that it's a mistake. The students in the study were only just learning Spanish, so they weren't anywhere near a fluency level, just trying to make sense of it (the idea was to see how students were reading and adjust education materials accordingly). They weren't reading it backwards, just separating the two units and interpreting them internally out of order.

By reading the second half of the word first, it shows they're still latching on to the English "I need a person before I can interpret a verb" approach, where as in Spanish it's flexible and can be other SV or VS. When you mix in object pronouns, a sentence can end up SOV, SVO, VOS, or OVS.

It was just done on Spanish because the Unievrsity had an ample supply of L1 English students learning Spanish :) It would, of course be interesting on seeing it with Arabic. I know the students at my school (kids 3-8) do get veritably confused when they are learning both Latin and Arabic script at the same time, they can't separate the written, but spoken they speak both Spanish and Arabic (well, I assume on the second) perfectly and are the best English students in the school.

But I would really be interested to see how our reading of texts changes based on a variety of factors, serif size, degree of contrast, size of text, spacing and kerning, etc. Take a sample of 100 people an analyze how each changes their reading of things, how they move their eyes, what they focus on, etc. Much like the highway font experiment but instead of for long-distance reading, for short distance and both for long and short term reading (eg, display words/titles v body text).

Perhaps in doing so we might find that the eye seems to track along a the base line in a serif font, giving weight to the idea that serifs guide the reader and make it easier, or we might find that they distract to an extent. Or we might find they really don't make much of a difference. Anyone wanna set up an experiment? :)

«El futuro es una línea tan fina que apenas nos damos cuenta de pintarla nosotros mismos». (La Luz Oscura, por Javier Guerrero)

Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch's picture
Joined: 7 Feb 2007 - 10:21am
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Okay I know this is an old thread that was randomly resurrected, but I wasn't around for the original and do have something to add :)

About a year and half or two ago, I attended a dinner featuring a second language education researcher from Florida State University (I think it was FSU, might have been UF, one of the two heh). One of the parts of his research involved understanding how foreign language learners read and understand texts, in this case, specifically L1 English students learning Spanish. While conventional wisdom would have it that students are most confused in Spanish by the conjugations, they found actually that students tend to focus the majority of their effort on word stems. They did this by studying how the did various worksheets/tests/etc while in some mechanism that allowed eye tracking, so they could see exactly where and for how long students were studying different parts of the words. IIRC, the students would read words backwards, that is, read the conjugation quickly, and then backtrack to study the base word, eg, in "acaeciésemos", they would focus on "-iésemos" (1st Pl. Past Subj. -se form) and then later spend time on "acaec-" (acaecer, to happen) figuring out what it means, rather than the other way around was would native speakers.

It would seem to me that a similar approach could be used to judge reading texts between serif and sans serif.

«El futuro es una línea tan fina que apenas nos damos cuenta de pintarla nosotros mismos». (La Luz Oscura, por Javier Guerrero)

Gutenburgz_1400's picture
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The idea that the serif is not of our time or that the sans is more modern is bunk. Sheer unmitigated nonsense. If you read about this subject on Typophile or do any research into western letter history you will find abundant reasons as why.

you obviously need to familiarize yourself with modernism.

Eben Sorkin's picture
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Joined: 22 Jan 2004 - 4:19pm
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Pfff!! What you have there is a true-ism. It isn't true at all, but it is commonly assumed to be true. So it seems "self evident".

I will explain why if you want. But first, when does this "modern" period begin? 20's 30's 40's 50's? Start there & we can go on.

Or, as I said before, do a search of typophile and you will quickly find out why I say this is so.

-e.

James Mark Hatley's picture
Joined: 13 Jul 2004 - 11:00am
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I will explain why if you want. But first, when does this “modern” period begin? 20’s 30’s 40’s 50’s? Start there & we can go on.

So right. The word can hardly be pinned down. In my common usage it ended in 1954. What’s going on now? My guess would be it isn't modernism or even post-modernism. And what IS up with the post thing anyway. I can't believe we will just be stuck adding one more post to recycled theory for the rest of our post-post-post-post-post historical existence. Maybe neo-primitive will actually just be primitive again and we can use sans not because it is more modern than serif but because we reinvented it.

Eben Sorkin's picture
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Joined: 22 Jan 2004 - 4:19pm
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Well exactly, there is the problem of the word but more crucially there is the problem of the supposed relationship of the Sans to the modern. That doesn't hold up either.

Alessandro Segalini's picture
Joined: 5 Oct 2005 - 5:14pm
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Long life to Miss Giggles and her shoes.
I hosted Mr. Patur last Friday, a humble dedicated self-taught calligrapher, a great remind for why serif is still used and important today. The students were hypnotized and that made my day.
You can also define what is classic to decide upon what’s modern.
We should also keep in mind that the contemporary trend (or duty) is to have well-thought collaborative serif/sans families.

Russell McGorman's picture
Joined: 25 May 2006 - 10:01am
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simple answer from a simple mind: Be there a practical or functional reason to keep or discard the serif or not, One flavour of type would be boring.

-=®=-

Gutenburgz_1400's picture
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If we had only one beautiful sans-serif the world would be a much prettier place.

Eben Sorkin's picture
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One thing about a Miss Giggles question is that it brings out all my favorite folks to answer that question. I like that a lot.

Carl your points about logicalistic arguments are spot on.

Personally the serifs leading the eye is a theory I don't buy. It's a little too much like the idea that horses are pulling the sun across the sky.

Nick, I don't agree with your idea that using the word "immersive" leading. When you read, just like when you watch a film you enter the processing of that media by degrees. In both cases you can forget anything else is going on and thus become "immersed" in the media. In film this is called suspension of disbelief. I don't think there is anything wrong with the idea that reading in an immersed state may be different from reading prior to that state might differ perhaps subtle but meaningful ways. Nick's magazine example is false I think because I don't know that I would become immersed in such a short text- and if I did I would be jolted out of it by the question headers.

The idea that the serif is not of our time or that the sans is more modern is bunk. Sheer unmitigated nonsense. If you read about this subject on Typophile or do any research into western letter history you will find abundant reasons as to why.

My pet logicalistic theory is that serifs provide extra data for the brain to use when recognizing either letters or word shapes as the case may be. The shape of a letter with serifs is more complex and there fore data rich. With a relative surplus of data perhaps recognition may be be accomplished slightly faster. If brains were really slow like a very old computer chip it would take longer - but that isn't the case. The mere presence of a serif is not enough however - it's a a matrix of factors that combine to make a text easy or hard to read. There are plenty of serif fonts that would be a nightmare to read long texts in. Maybe this idea is equivalent to but a more mushy way of saying serifs enhance "slot processing".

missgiggles's picture
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Is Spanish read from left to right or the other way round? Could that be a reason as to why they read that way? Why wa sit just tested on the Spanish. Should have tried people who read arabic. They read from right to left. Hmm...

Eben Sorkin's picture
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Given the profile "Gutenburgz" has (click on the name) I think we probably shouldn't take him too seriously.

darrel's picture
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missgiggles seems to suffer from [[seriphobia]].

Kristin Dooley's picture
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I keep wondering why I still use my voice.

I type much faster than I speak. There are excellent synthesizers out there with much better diction and volume than I manage. I'd be far more effective if I sounded like that "in a world" guy from the movie trailers. Why am I still using my voice?

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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> Easier to read, more formal, classic.

Triple bingo.

On the other hand:
1) Some people use it out of pretension (although the same applies to sans).
2) We should find out as much as possible concerning why it helps reading.

Long live the serif!

hhp

Chris Lozos's picture
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Kristen,
Just keep singing instead of talking :-)

ChrisL

Nick Shinn's picture
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Why am I still using my voice?

It has the most unique personality?

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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On the other hand, clients and their users are not really interested in the designer's personality (at least not explicitly) which is fine because if they are I'd worry. We have enough problems with the cult of personality in the west without obsessing about it in the design of useful things.

hhp

Terry Biddle's picture
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Joined: 21 May 2005 - 1:42pm
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Why do we keep taking the bait?

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Miss Giggles, if you could articulate all of your thoughts into one cohesive statement -- even if it is several paragraphs long -- we might understand where you are coming from.

The serif isn't a problem. Heaven forbid the day when we only have sans to choose from. I for one, as a graphic designer and typographer, would lash out and rebel should this happen. I relish have choice, even if it is a subtle choice between serif and sans.

missgiggles's picture
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okay Tiffany, the whole point of asking thsi question was because i am trying to figure out the development of the serif from the Romans to the Runaissance and beyond to this day and trying to analyse the whole developing process ofit and how its been expanding etc. i have major events that i have pin pointed which are very important to the serif development like:
- Roman inscriptions,stone chiselled serif letters.
- Trajan column
-Roman numerals
-Tory Geoffory (student of Leonardo da Vinci and Durer) who designed serif with great precision.
-Classical fonts like Garamond, Bembo, Caslon, Didot, Baskerville, Times, Bodoni and trying to understand how they expanded into the type families they are today but i'm missing information beyond Renaissance so i'm wondering what happened between then and now? What major developments took place? and why and how the serif is used today. thats all. i guess i should have said all this in the first place rather than ask separate questions. sorry people.

Nick Shinn's picture
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personality

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, not a bare neck prompting axe grinding.

Carl Crossgrove's picture
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I don't actually get from miss g. that she wants the serif gone. They are questions. It sounds like she wants to understand why the tradition is so strong.

So, Miss G, here are some clues: Tradition?, "Who Kept Them Alive", and "For What Purpose".... Those are your best questions to ask. Unfortunately none of us can rattle off textbook answers. It's easier to explain where they came from and how they changed over the centuries, but this question of "why" is kind of unanswerable.

Worth noting: there were those in the early 20th century who predicted it would be the century of the sans serif. They were correct. Look at the type from 1900-2000. However, if they also said or implied that the serif would go away forever, they were wrong. Look at the type of 1950-2006.

The pluralism of graphic options could be seen as biodiversity; users of type tend to want a lot of variety once they realize they can have choices. Even if we can't explain the purpose of serifs, they seem to satisfy something very basic for us; you'd have a revolution on your hands if you tried to ban serifed type. Clearly they are not "vestigial" or unnecessary as some have proposed. If they are, then it's tradition keeping them alive.

Expecting only the "most functional" type to survive is probably misguided.

missgiggles's picture
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crossgrove, i dont want a ban on serifs. why would i want that for? its probably the tone of voice that i have conveyed in my question that made you think that. is liek you said: who kept them alive and for what purpose is what i am really after. how come it is still living strong after so many centuries, tahst all. sorry for the misunderstanding.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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> Runaissance

Ah, new satirical term: Renuisance Man. :-)

hhp

Carl Crossgrove's picture
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No, I don't think that. Read the thread; everyone else seems to think that. I'm trying to answer your questions as you've asked them. Is there static on this line?

Patricia Fabricant's picture
Joined: 23 Mar 2004 - 9:40am
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Miss Giggles that is such a broad question! Simple answer: the serif still alive because people like it and it's easy to read. And appropriate, visually, to a broad range of applications. Sometimes the sans is simply too hard edged, cold, or modern to work properly. Why overthink?

Not to mention that design - like everything else - is cyclical. Things fall out of fashion, get revived and dusted off and have a new life. The trends that endure are those that are timeless and not too tied to a specific era or movement. Like the good pair of boots that you wear year after year because they are comfortable and durable and go with everything.

But of course there's also room for a pair of pink sparkly pumps to liven things up on occasion.

paul d hunt's picture
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untested hypothesis: serifs produce better [[bouma|boumas]].

Brian Jongseong Park's picture
Joined: 15 Mar 2006 - 12:53pm
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Designing anything that is meant to be read is necessarily conservative. The reading public has little tolerance for innovation, and besides historically most innovations have owed as much to changes in technology as to the desires of type designers to express their personality, if not more.

Different type styles, different letterforms, or different writing systems altogether may be vastly superior in readability, but the reading public comes with a strongly built-in bias towards what it is accustomed to.

So if serif faces have been used in setting Roman text for centuries, the question to ask is not why is it still used today, but why innovations are introduced at all. The history of type for immersive reading really is about these little innovations that somehow defy the staticity and inertia of the reading public's preferences, whatever the reasons behind them might be.

So in short, it is not that people have worked hard to keep the serif alive all this time. It would have been much, much harder to force people to abandon the serif.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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I think the conservativeness of the reading public is generally over-stated, and it's entirely possible to deploy innovation that "flies under the radar" of possible conscious layman rejection.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture
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...type designers to express their personality...

What I meant was the personality of the typeface, eg its individuality.

With serifs, it's possible to also incorporate stroke variation in a type design, without getting excessive sparkle. Stroke variation, not necessarily for reading functionality, but as a means of providing variety of personality in at typeface.

So, serif faces have more personality than sans serifs, more options for variety -- which can be use by typographers to match the variety of uses, the different personalities of products, of typographers, and of different media.

Of course, if you're a really good graphic designer, you can use Helvetica for everything and make it look brilliant all the time.~

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Joined: 13 Jul 2001 - 11:00am
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Miss Giggles, have you happened to read any of the suggested books yet?

missgiggles's picture
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yes i have but origin of serif is on it's way but they all make me cinfused coz i'm reading too much and forgetting what goes where and i cant relate things together and link them coz there's just too much history to read. i'm trying my best though.i have 7 books im reading all on typography and history and they got different dates to somethings though so i dont know what it should be but i do my best. am i asking questions that are unreasonable? is that why u asking?

marian bantjes's picture
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Renuisance Man.
Thanks hrant, that put me into ... helpless giggles.

Blank's picture
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Why do we keep taking the bait?

Because there's nothing good on TV, at least not until Inside Washington at 8:30. I can't decide what's funnier; Krauhammer's insanity, Totenberg's outfits, or Miss Giggles baiting people into a conversation about the worth of serifs.

yes i have but origin of serif is on it’s way but they all make me cinfused coz i’m reading too much and forgetting what goes where and i cant relate things together and link them coz there’s just too much history to read

That's not hard to identify with. I find reading design books one at a time has become a necessity.

am i asking questions that are unreasonable? is that why u asking?

I don't think it's necessarily the questions you ask, but the way you ask them. They tend to be written like above-average text messages, which makes them rather offbeat for typophile, as well as a little confusing.

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Miss Giggles, when I have done historical writing and I needed to track a timeline I used small postcards and would write the date (year) at the top large, and then the event smaller underneath it. After a while I was able to see a timeline form because of these dates. You might try that. You can tape them to your wall, move them around, add more information as you find it. Very useful.

Chris Lozos's picture
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Post-it-notes work well for me with convoluted project management timelines, why not type history too?

ChrisL