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This is not a technical question. However as the FAQs say this place is about

people who love to create well-structured and beautifully typeset documents

I take my shot.

I am often confused when which font family is more appropriate. Most people would suggest: "take what you like the most". But there are typographicaly reasons and I don't want to pick a font familty randomly.

I am looking for some good paper reasoning about the choice of font family, no luck so far. Are there good sources?

  • 1
    Perhaps this answer is helpful. – lockstep Dec 22 '10 at 9:55
  • I took the liberty to tidy up your post a little. I hope you don't mind. – Yossi Farjoun Dec 22 '10 at 10:05
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a good and detailed answer can be found also here - although it's talking about web design, I think these are good guide lines also for printed documents: http://webdesign.about.com/od/fonts/a/aa080204.htm

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  • presentations: sans-serif
  • documents:
    • up to one/two pages: sans-serif or serif
    • more pages: always serif
    • header/titles maybe in sans-serif
  • 4
    ...why? Is there any kind of explanation or justification for this list (other than "I said so", obviously)? – Najib Idrissi Mar 29 '16 at 13:39
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I know the question is about typography (i.e., aesthetics), but maybe an overview over several scientific studies which compare the legibility of typefaces is also interesting:

Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces?

Finally, we should accept that most reasonably designed typefaces in mainstream use will be equally legible, and that it makes much more sense to argue in favour of serif or sans serif typefaces on aesthetic grounds than on the question of legibility.

Since aesthetics cannot be determined scientifically, the only important reason to prefer one typeface over another is really your personal opinion—but often it helps to stick to traditions.

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    it is not a question of aesthetics, it is a question of what can be read easier. This is measured by the speed how one can read a text and understand. Of course, there are different publication of what is better to read, a long serif or sans-serif text. Today it is more a common sense to use a serif font for long papers. – user2478 Dec 22 '10 at 16:32
  • @Herbert: The OP mentioned typographic reasons and didn't ask about legibility. – Philipp Dec 22 '10 at 17:09
  • sure, and from a book of typography: "for most people a text with a serif fonts is better to read" – user2478 Dec 22 '10 at 17:56
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    That sentence has been disproven by the studies mentioned in the blog post. Likewise the typography book should cite several studies that come to the opposite conclusion, otherwise it's scientifically unsound. – Philipp Dec 22 '10 at 18:13
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Semi-serious answer: You could look it up on this fabulous poster: So you need a Typeface.

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I don't think there's a reasonable answer to this question. It all depends on typeface. In the earlier days of last century, Sans serif were mainly used for display purpose, displacing Didot like faces, and serif faces are used for continued readings. However this line is increasingly blurred thess days.

Now, you can have sans serif such as Scala Sans or Syntax, Crosnos and many other faces that are as humane as as any serif face. Legacy Sans is as much Venetian as any serif faces I have seen. And they are very well suited for text usage.

On the other hand, there are also sturdy serif faces that blur the lines between sans serif and serif faces. And some serif faces play the role of a display face as gracefully as any sans serif. Higher contrast faces such as Questa Grande has long played the role of a display face. If you look at any 19th century book title, you are likely to find one in Didot, Bodoni, Walbum, etc.

There's also no reason that sans-serif being more "informal" than serifs. Acumin can be as formal as any serif I know of. Jenson can be just as warm as any sans.

The only place that sans serif is really dominant that I can think of is signage.

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There is one reason to use serif and not sans serif: It is less likely to read a "l" as a "I" or vice versa. In the other hand, the "1" and the "l" look very similar on some serif fonts, but still better than the "l" and the "I" in most sans serif fonts.

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Serifs are used for traditional things, and with themes like "corporate" and "formal", and for books & novels, etc. I use Sans Serif when the themes are "modern", "fun", "Colourful" and "playful"

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Disclaimer: This answer is subjective. Good references to support claims are missing, even if the reason is based on my understanding of R. Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style.

Main text: Serif typefaces are known for being more readable (in terms of content understood per unit of time), as serifs guide the eye through the line. (Of course, this is true for well designed typefaces.)

This is why they are often chosen as font for the main text.

Headings: The purpose of headings is to highlight the structure of the reason in the text. Headings should thus contrast with the main text.

My claim is that because widespread typefaces are often constituted of a few fonts only (e.g., the Times New Roman typeface is available through its regular, italic, bold and bold-italic fonts only), and because the man in the street lack of knowledge in typography/aesthetic design (and that's normal), the common choice for headings' typeface is sans-serif.

On-screen reading: Note that this reasoning is verified in the reverse direction is some websites where the main text is typesetted in a sans-serif typeface (as sans-serif font are more readable on screen, as serif might appear blurred) and headings thus use a serif font.


Is this a good thing? I would prefer steering you towards renowned sources. It also depends on your objective: do you want your text to be a medium for conveying ideas, or do you want it to be admired?

My understanding is that one should balance the contrast between headings and the main text (i.e., increasing contrast) versus the global unity of the document (i.e., decreasing contrast).

My rule of thumb would thus be: change one setting at a time.
That is you between 'main heading' and 'sub heading', or between 'sub heading' and 'main text', you may change either the font size (10, 12, 16pt.), or the font weight (thin, regular, semi-bold, bold, ...), or the slope (regular, italic - slanted), or the caps (regular, small caps, full caps), or the serif, etc. But not all at the same time.
A good example of this is the book mentioned above, in which Bringhurst uses one (serif) type face only for the whole text. Only captions of full-page figures are typesetted in a sans-serif type face.

Beautiful (as synonym of 'noticeable') design does not mean good (as synonym of 'functional') design.

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    In one of their books Willberg and Forssman show that serif glyphs are more redundant and therefore you can more easily distinguish the letters. AFAIR they also write that this is even more important than guiding through the line, because we oft focus the top part of a text line not the baseline. But maybe I'm wrong (don't have the book here). Tschichold wrote, that bold fat large serif fonts are too much for headings and you should use either non bold or less large or sans serif. But some years before he said, sans-serif fonts are evil. And some years before he said they are great. ;-) – Schweinebacke Jun 7 '17 at 15:49
  • Note: Some my claims are challenged in this article cited in Philip's answer. – ebosi Jun 7 '17 at 19:15

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