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Serif v Sans-Serif – Arial Font Creates Optical Illusion

Readability Experiment
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability.
One of the supposed expert views that keeps on coming up is the assertion that sans-serif typefaces are ‘easier to read’ than serif typefaces. You can see some research that looks at this issue (and disputes it, while acknowledging that it’s a widespread view) at
On this page, I will clearly demonstrate that the reverse is the case – this page enables you, with someone who asserts very authoritatively that sans-serif is clearer for reading, to look at their backside, then you can tell them how clever they are to talk out of it.
There are two samples blocks of text below, one in Arial and the other with identical text in Times New Roman. The two samples you see here are in thumbnail, click on them to see the full-size samples.
The Arial sample looks like the lines of text aren’t straight. They are, but there’s an optical illusion that they are not. In the sample with the serif font (which is at the same point size) the effect is much less marked – the text looks OK and not climbing hills and descending valleys. With Arial it looks misaligned.
Times New Roman
Here you can experiment for yourself with different fonts and with more regular-style text. What this all tells us is not to be pedantic with guidelines, for those who do that are not as expert as they like to think.
Font     Set   Default font   Size pt.    incl. (n%) 
Countries  Recalc      Random Text
A pattern of text in certain fonts gives the illusion that the lines are not level. More marked the wider the window. Sans-serif fonts seem to be especially prone to this. Serif fonts suffer from the distorting effect much less seriously.
So there you are then, that settles it, a serif font is much easier to read, right? Except of course that this is a rather contrived experiment, for who would lay out lists of countries like that? Nonetheless, it does show you that what some people categorically think, is categorically wrong. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it isn’t, it all depends.
(Because this page does not ask for anything to be downloaded to your machine, it has no way of knowing what fonts are present on your machine, so it cannot give you a full dropdown list of fonts. The dropdown box just gives the Microsoft fonts that most people have. You can type in any font name in the ‘Font’ box and click ‘Set’, if the font in the font box is not found on your machine, the font from the default list will be substituted.)
If you uncheck the incl.(n%) checkbox for the list of countries, you’ll see that without the numeric percentages in parentheses the distortion illusion is much reduced, so it seems to be something to do with the parentheses, or the parentheses, numbers and percent sign, that aggravates the effect.
Making the font size bigger reduces the distortion, as one might suspect, since there will be fewer words on the line.
A word about Comic Sans. There are still some people who maintain that Comic Sans is an easy-to-read font of merit. Not on this page it isn’t, though – it’s a feast for sore eyes (it makes them sorer). Another strange observation about Comic Sans, that you will notice on this page. If you look at the country name, United States in Comic Sans, and compare it with, say, Morocco, or Lithuania, or Slovakia, United States looks altogether much bigger and wider. Of course it is much bigger and wider than those countries, as a place, but that’s no excuse for Microsoft to be so brazen about it. No wonder that some people have a downer on Comic Sans! (If you cannot see United States on the page, click on the Recalc button, which recreates the countries list using a randomiser.)


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just stumbled on your blog and found it very interesting and irritating! I have reading difficulties and this page has inadvertently created an experiment. I read the top half, in the serif font, and found I was unconsciously straining my eyes to read the text. I didn't even realise I was even doing this until I reached the second part where you start "Here you can experiment..." and suddenly my eyes relaxed as I read on! Not scientific just anecdotal.

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