Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).