Which is Easier to Read: Serif or Sans?
Recently, I've found myself pondering a question that seemed to have been solved long ago: Which is easier to read, serif or sans-serif typefaces?
In school, my professors all said serif was the winner. The world nodded in agreement. Serifs are better at leading the reader's eye, they said. The characters are more distinct, making it easier to identify individual letters. It all sounded so logical. Of course I believed them.
Well — spoiler alert! — my professors were all wrong. There is no measurable difference between reading serif and sans-serif type. But why is that the case?1 And how did we all have it wrong for so long?
Bad Science & Bad Cyril
For years, science sought to settle the question. Several studies came to the conclusion that serifs were superior, including one by Cyril Burt in the 1950s that seemed to resolve the debate once and for all. Only one problem: It all turns out to be bad science — and in Burt's case something more sinister.
The conventional wisdom about serifs stood for nearly 50 years before someone challenged the status quo. In 1999, Ole Lund, a PhD candidate at The University of Reading, rigorously tested the methodology used in previous studies and published a paper revealing major flaws.2
Lund didn't have to do much to debunk that supposedly landmark research by Cyril Burt. The man discredited himself by falsifying data throughout his career — Burt even made up some of his collaborators.
So it's a myth that serif typefaces are easier to read. We've all just been conditioned to believe because of decades of bad data. Over that time, we've also ignored credible studies showing there's no difference in legibility between serif and sans-serif.
But some beliefs die hard. Even the text in Lund's original, 287-page paper was set in New Century Schoolbook. You guessed it, a serif.
- Alex Poole answers this question beautifully in his point-by-point takedown of the fallacious arguments for serif typefaces.
- And hey! You can actually download Lund's whole paper, "Knowledge Construction in Typography: The Case of Legibility Research and the Legibility of Sans Serif Typefaces", for free — if you're not put off by the confusing sign-in process.