Graphic designers are fond of sleight of hand: having it both ways. If you notice typography, they say, you’ve already failed. Meaning that on the one hand serif fonts are wonderful, and on the other hand so are sans serif type faces.
Except, of course, that great design is arresting, and therefore always noticed.
There’s the old argument about sans being more legible on-screen. Today, though, that hardly cuts it anymore, unless you’re still using a Newton.
Dammit! Won’t anyone offer me a half-way convincing but definitive answer? The answer is a yawning silence.
Over time, though, I have come to formulate my own views. In a context that has included writing for money, newspaper layout, and desktop publishing magazines.
In that context, I have much more sympathy for qualitative measures than purely functional ones. And I have come to observe some common themes among the sans crowd I know.
In choosing fonts myself, I begin by asking myself whether I want to cook a gourmet meal, or slap together a hamburger.
When I work with words onscreen, I am careful about setting up margins, leading, magnification, and, especially, the font. Would it surprise you to learn that I will not upgrade to Office 2013 or 2016 because Microsoft eliminated a feature allowing me to see text boundaries as faint page margin outlines?
If your response is that none of that really matters in the scheme of things, and only the words count, I have nothing to reveal to you.
My own choice, as with meals, is always guided by circumstance: a note on someone’s windscreen is sans, but a note to someone I know is serif.
The point is that both reading and writing are not merely mechanical functions to achieve fixed objectives, but experiences that imbue the outcomes.
Reading and writing is not, for me, driven purely by known or desired outcomes. If it did not contain the opportunity for serendipitous discovery and sensory delight, why would I bother at all. I might as well just mark up punch cards with a pencil, or code in an IDE. As many people do.
Punchcards and IDEs are sans. Serendipity is serif.
When given the choice between reading the latest self-help bestseller or pop culture disquisition, and a novel by James Ellroy or a new edition of Schiller’s Wallenstein, I would most likely pick one of the latter. And given the choice of reading these as a specially butchered epub edition in Noto, I’d definitely pick a paper edition set in Garamond.
How does this improve my experience of reading?
First, the advent of the gadget, and the PC before it, has re-imagined presenting words as purely a function of pouring them like concrete into a formwork of a more important structure. More important because of the hype cycle that always surrounds technological advances (remember the days when it wasn’t going to be long before we all drove hovercars, and how that would change the nature of travel?).
The advent of personal computing hasn’t really changed the nature of reading or writing nearly as much as expected in the 1990s; there’s just much more shit around online now than there used to be, and a lot more crap being talked about writing for web as somehow inherently different from writing for anywhere else. Writing for the web, by the way, is these days being taught along lines I would think appropriate for tutoring someone to write toilet wall graffiti.
But back to pouring words into moulds …
Sans serif fonts are inherently less bruised and battered for being poured like molten slag, or coarse-graded cement. Just as they are inherently less likely to be violated by manipulation of kerning and other distortions applied by designers.
But they are harder to digest for that flexibility. Sitting heavily, like too much cheese at the end of dinner, or too much suet pastry during the meal itself.
These are my preferences after decades of reading and writing far more habitually than I suspected of others, many of whom seem to do it grudgingly, and quite sparingly.
The serif, in these settings is like a constant companion, a known quantity, a reliably readable enabler, but a faithful servant of the words. The sans serif, in contrast, makes its own statement of brutalism, coldness, and functionality. It is a herald with its own raiment of colours and trumpet blasts, echoing the smelting or pouring process by which it has assumed its block-like shape and uncompromising assertiveness.
It’s not really the fault of the sans serif so much as that of popular taste. Its elegant ur-forms in serious design have been much traduced, the way film-stars today have less character than convexity, and appear entirely disposable because these attributes are easily replaced by countless other boys with rippling muscles and girls with improbably callipygian cleavages.
Just look at the number of new sans serifs in the past twenty years compared to the number of new serifs. If you exclude single purpose fonts, the ratio must be 200:1.
That brings me to some recent observations that seem to confirm old suspicions. When sharing lecture theatre spaces with serious-minded professionals, and aspiring newcomers, there was no end of gadgets to be seen. Those who used these devices to make notes rather than check Facebook queues mostly did so using sans serif fonts. Perhaps because these are the default fonts in all popular software packages now. Software developers are notoriously hostile to both reading and writing; just talk to any technical writer trying to get developers to comment their code, let alone write notes on what modules do.
I usually scrawled out my lecture notes by hand, in my apparently near-illegible handwriting, on legal pads, with fountain pens whenever possible. A personal preference I believe actually helped me retain more of what was said than I would have working a keyboard and listening at the same time.
Where academic instructors permitted departure from the reigning APA Style Guide demand for Times New Roman 12/24, the sans serif cohort would present their papers in formats favouring the ugliest, most malproportioned sans possible, big paragraph spacing, plus massive first line indents. Default settings again? I think that after the mandated Times New Roman, the default Colibri mongoloid child of Redmond font perverts was the most widely used font.
Times New Roman is not the most handsome of serifs, but Colibri is undoubtedly a hideous compromise for very small type on really bad screens. I dealt with this demand for aesthetic atrocity by arguing adherence to APA style while substituting the true type Times New Roman with an elegantly bearable Times Europa Linotype. I would surely have used the marvellous TeX Gyre Bonum face by the Polish GUST e-foundry had I known of it back then, despite its Bookman parentage. But I digress. Again.
Apart from gauche font and layout practices, the sans serif crowd was also invariably shy about using headers, footers, spell checks, and proofreading, if only to pick up on paragraphs that ended in mid-sentence over YouTube distractions.
I got to read quite a number of papers in an enforced peer review process sold as educational for us, but probably really just practiced as an expression of sadism by instructors forced to regularly suffer the avalanche of bad writing and absent thinking that passes for post-graduate assignments. I sometimes wondered whether English composition wasn’t taught at high school anymore, or whether you could forget what it is about in the years between school and some higher degree. But I became convinced that most of my intake cohort loathed writing, and because writing is always the expression of thinking, they hated thinking even more passionately. Looking at their Spartan reference lists, they also clearly despised reading. And whatever reading they did force themselves to do was almost always interpreted literally, like a sermon in a big tent revivalist gathering.
It seemed like a neat fit in my thinking: the brutalist architecture of sans serifs matched with the authoritarian mind-set so prevalent under the regimes that made concrete edifices almost an architectural signature. The anti-intellectual bent inherent in a phobia for reading and writing matched with the technocrat literalism that characterises all totalitarianisms. A purely functional approach to reading and writing for instruction.
The sans crowd down to a tee.
Hands up all who know something about the history of Helvetica! OK, obviously I can’t see hands, but it seems to have been an all-purpose sans serif that has its roots in what even the designers called ‘grotesque’ and ‘neo-grotesque’ pan-Germanic design emphases.
It went on to become one of the most popular typefaces of its century. But mostly as a signage font. Not for extended text. It is the policeman of fonts, giving directions and telling you what you can or cannot do. It labels things, and tells you what’s what in succinct, stern tones. It becomes elegant only when used by master artisans.
There is no opposite story for any serif. Because they all speak with someone else’s language and inflection. And sometimes I can make them speak with my voice.
That’s as far as I have developed my personal theory of typefaces. But if you made it to this paragraph, did you read in a sans or a serif? Would you prefer it had been the other way around? Why?
I’m going to go away now and continue to look for that perfect serif face. I may be looking for a long time.