How Sans-Serif Typeface Styles Affect Readability

by on 09/27/12 at 7:24 am

Almost everywhere you look on the web, there’s a sans-serif typeface. Sans-serif typefaces have long been the standard for on-screen text due to their increased readability for low screen resolutions. But new research shows that not all sans-serif typefaces have equal readability. Certain sans-serif typeface styles are easier and faster to read than others. This has dramatic implications on interfaces where reading speed and ease is a matter of life or death.

Reducing Driver Distraction with Humanist Typefaces

Monotype and MIT AgeLab did a study that found that the style of a sans-serif typeface can affect how long a driver’s eyes fixate on a dashboard screen and off the road while driving. The study tested humanist and grotesque typeface styles against each other, and found that humanist typefaces were significantly quicker and easier for drivers to read. There was a “12% difference in average glance time, which represents approximately 50 feet in distance when traveling at U.S. highway speed.” This means that the average highway driver would move 50 feet or more with their eyes fixated on a screen that displayed a grotesque typeface compared to a screen that displayed a humanist typeface. They also predicted that the glance time difference in real world driving would be greater compared to the study’s simulator.

Implications for Mobile Phone Interfaces

Dashboard interfaces aren’t the only interfaces drivers look at while driving. Many drivers also look at their mobile phones to read text messages and map directions. This means that mobile phone interface designers could save lives and prevent driver distraction by choosing to use a humanist typeface over a grotesque one. The research has shown that the glance time difference between the two sans-serif typeface styles is too great to ignore. A design decision as simple as choosing a typeface can either put drivers in danger or keep them safe on the road.

The Difference Between Grotesque and Humanist Typefaces

Grotesque and humanist typefaces are both sans-serif, but their differences are stylistically subtle. Grotesque typefaces have a more square and linear shape to them. Their characters also have very little line width variation. Neo-grotesque typefaces are like grotesque typefaces, but they’re less square and have greater line width variations. Humanist typefaces are the most calligraphic looking of them all. Their characters have the greatest line width variations and the most contrast in shape, making them the sans-serif typeface that’s fastest and easiest to read.

List of Humanist Typefaces | List of Neo-Grotesque Typefaces | List of Grotesque Typefaces

Choosing a Typeface

There are lots of sans-serif typefaces you can choose from. But before you choose, ask yourself whether reading speed and ease is of prime concern for the user’s task. If the user will find themselves in situations where they need to spend less time fixating on a screen and more attention on doing an outside task, then make sure you choose a typeface that’s proven to make reading text fast and easy. Choosing a typeface isn’t always about interface aesthetics. Sometimes it’s about user readability and safety, which are far more important.

7 Responses to “How Sans-Serif Typeface Styles Affect Readability”

  1. Carl Hays

    Sep 28th, 2012

    I think I’m going to start using a different typeface on my sites as a result of this article.

    I’m curious, is this site run on WordPress? The reason I ask is because I’d like to know if that “Say Thanks” button is a plugin. If so, what is it called?

    Thanks!

  2. Alastair McDermott

    Sep 29th, 2012

    Carl,

    I think they are using the Thank You Counter Button plugin from http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/thanks-you-counter-button/

    - Alastair.

  3. Sean

    Jan 16th, 2013

    So does that mean people with digital displays in cars have their eyes off of the road for about 400 feet in distance when traveling at U.S. highway speed?

  4. Greg

    May 23rd, 2013

    You’d be surprised how far you travel in the few seconds you take your eyes off the wheel. I see people do it every day, it’s crazy!
    I do really like the NEO-Grotesque font out of the three you’ve mentioned.

Leave a Comment