Tim Ellison

Front-End Web Developer

Serifs for Readability

August 31, 2019

In the midst of upgrading my site from Gatsby v1 to v2, I noticed I really didn’t like my typeface choices for body text like this blog post. After playing around with several options I realized what was wrong: my site’s body text was in a sans serif typeface. It turns out serif typefaces are the superior choice for readability.

Remind me again…

In a letterform, a serif is a little decorative stroke attached to a larger letter stroke. Here’s a side by side comparison:

side by side comparison of serif and sans serif typefaces

Serifs are non-essential. If you remove the serifs from a letterform you’ll still be able to discern what letter it is.

Readability, not legibility

Don’t confuse readability with legibility. Legibility is a property of the typeface itself. An expressive cursive hand is less legible than Helvetica, for example. Readability is a function of how the typeface is used. Long paragraphs in Helvetica are less readable than short pieces of text in Helvetica.

Also don’t confuse a typeface’s being more or less legible or readable with it being a good or bad typeface. Not all text needs to be legible, and not all text needs to be read. As always, context is king.

So what makes a serif typeface more readable?

There are several possible answers I’ve seen for why serif typefaces are more readable than sans serif typefaces:

One popular explanation is that the serifs help guide the eye as it travels across long lines of text. But as far as I can see there’s no scientific basis for making this claim.

The explanation that seems most plausible to me is that people are simply more accustomed to reading serifs because most books are published in serif typefaces. Even Kindles use a serif typeface by default. In my experience, most aesthetic preferences have their root in habit.

So every serif typeface is more readable than every sans serif typeface?

No, absolutely not. There are many factors affecting readability, so some serif typefaces may be less legible than certain sans serif typefaces. Even a normally very readable serif typefaces can be made unreadable by poor kerning or line-spacing choices. Be sure to experiment with a variety of typefaces to find one that fits your content and your audience. I tend to write long paragraphs and I write with an adult audience in mind, so I prefer a more conservative serif like you’d find in a book. If I were writing in short, aphoristic phrases or I were writing for a younger audience a sans serif might actually be more readable.