Do you believe in the life to come? (Clov)
Mine was always that. (Hamm)
— Samuel Beckett (Endgame)
Sans-Serif fonts are the bane of reading. I don't know how much time I've wasted over the years trying to make sense of ambiguous characters because they were written in a Sans-Serif font (typeface) such as Helvetica. It is bad when a character printed on a page (or on a display screen) can be interpreted in two or more ways. Instead of zipping right through some text, I have to actually stop and puzzle out a word or symbol. That is not good for reading speed and comprehension, and I find it personally frustrating. And no, I'm not "slow" or dyslexic. I can read like the wind when the right typeface is used.
Say I'm reading along and encounter "lll". I have to stop at this point. "What is that? Is it three hash marks? Is it a Roman numeral III? Is it an abbreviation for Illinois?" I have to look around at the context and try to figure out what they're saying. It's bad enough (that I had to stop in the first place) when I see Chicago just before it (ah, it's Illinois), or I see something suggesting a Roman Numeral would go there (Army Corps following). It's far worse when I'm looking at computer source code and those three strokes could be any combination of capital "I"s, lower case "els", or "ones". Oh, let's not forget "logical OR" (pipe) symbols too! I can, and have, spent many minutes at a time puzzling out just what was written in a manual.
Serifs on letters were invented by the Romans to improve the look of negative relief chiseled lettering. Over the millenia, they have come to serve very useful purposes in helping to distinguish among different characters as well as in guiding the eye along a line of type. Why are modern authors and their cohorts in crime, text designers so anxious to make it hard to read printed (or displayed) text? Sure, it's good to use different typefaces to distinguish among different kinds of things in technical writing, but please, don't choose a Sans-Serif font for any of them!
If Sans-Serif fonts, such as Helvetica, are banned from general writing, should they be used for anything? Well, if you treat them as decorative typefaces, to be used for special effect in specially chosen places, there's no harm in using them—with care! Unless it introduces ambiguity, section headings are generally an acceptable use, as are "dropped caps" at the beginning of certain section levels. Just as only a sadist would write a block of text in italics, only that type would write a block of text in Sans-Serif. You would not use a decorative typeface such as or for large amounts of text, would you? It's just as cruel to be subtle in torturing your reader as it is to go "over the top". The smaller the chunk of text your reader is dealing with (book title, chapter headings, dropped caps), the fancier the typeface you can get away with. The more the set-off text is likely to disrupt the smooth reading process, the more restraint should be exercised.
A famous example of confusion induced by the use of Sans Serif fonts occurred years ago at Xerox PARC . It seems that researchers were testing a new Graphical User Interface on "civilian" users. Everything went smoothly until the very end of each trial, when users would become very upset and refuse to continue. What happened? The last thing presented was a big button to click, labeled "Do It!". Actually, the words were run together (DoIt!) and the font was Helvetica, where the capital "I" looked like a lowercase "el". What these people saw was that the computer was calling them a dolt! (DoIt!).
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Last updated Fri, 06 Jan 2017 at 12:39 PM