Question for you design-y types:

I like to use a serif font for all my text (title, headings, body). What I'd like to know is whether you think that I should go with a serif or sans serif for text in my charts (bar labels, axis labels, chart titles, etc) and figures (flowchart node and edge labels, etc).

On the one hand, serif lends a nice continuity to the feel of the document, but on the other I think sans serifs are more legible with small fonts.

I'm torn on the matter. Thoughts?

  • 4
    Well it's more about harmony rather than the notes. Both might work or be dreadful. It's very much like buying furniture; you have to tell us the color of the room.
    – percusse
    Jul 31, 2012 at 2:35
  • I'm not quite sure what you mean by "the color of the room," but I'll try... I write scholarly articles for scientific journals. They can be either one or two column, with small section headers. The elsarticle template is a typical example. I use bar-charts and have labels both within the bars and at the ends. I also use line charts and sometimes label particular points. I also use quite a few flow charts, and these are particularly tricky. They can use a lot of text, so continuity with the body text is important. But they can also be intricate, so small font size/legibility are important.
    – Trevor
    Jul 31, 2012 at 4:46
  • 1
    do your charts contain math expressions? if so, those should probably match the main text, to avoid confusion. if not, you have more flexibility in your choice. Jul 31, 2012 at 12:56
  • @Trevor I use pgfplots for virtually all my plots and TikZ for my figures in IEEE and Elsevier articles. Hence the fonts are inherited from the text surrounding them.
    – percusse
    Jul 31, 2012 at 15:58
  • This is a historic argument with some very interesting (bad analysis along the way). An interesting review is here alexpoole.info/blog/… For me and my students the rule is what does the audience of my work require. If there is a style guide involved then it should be carefully checked. Personally, I have more difficulty reading documents with excessive use of bold, italics, changing font sizes and fully justified. Jul 31, 2012 at 19:10

1 Answer 1


Here my personal experience writing my thesis: Using one (serif) font in the text, pictures and charts seems to be the most elegant choice. However, using sans serif in diagrams, plots, figures, ... looks more technical and can be better legible. (all as you already mentioned)

I actually wanted to make the text of the captions of the figures and tables to be easily distinguishable from the main text. So I used a sans serif font for all tables and figures including their captions with one step smaller font size (\small). I made sure that all sans serif elements have the same font size. I also adjusted the leading to give similar blackness levels on the paper for the serif main text and the sans serif captions. Robert Bringhurst used a similar approach in his typography book.

One possible issue: If the sans serif font has less font features (e.g. small caps) then the serif font, one has to find a compromise...

Even if you can only adjust the figure's font, the technical, more clear appearance seems preferable to me.

  • This is a good answer, but I'm not going to "accept" it just yet because I'd like to keep this conversation going a bit longer. Also, you said that you use serifs for pictures and charts, but sans serifs for diagrams, plots and figures. I'm curious where you draw the distinction between a diagram, a plot, a chart, and a figure.
    – Trevor
    Jul 31, 2012 at 20:16
  • @Trevor I use a sans serif font for every floating object, figure and table including their captions. If I said something differently, I should correct it (but I don't see where).
    – sebschub
    Jul 31, 2012 at 20:54
  • Ah, I see. I was referring to your first paragraph, where you say that serifs are more elegant in pictures and charts, but sans serifs in diagrams, plots, figures look more technical. But you've cleared it up now, thanks.
    – Trevor
    Jul 31, 2012 at 22:22
  • (+1) for making a reference to The Elements of Typographic Style.
    – nnunes
    Dec 21, 2012 at 6:22

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