How Sans-Serif Typeface Styles Affect Readability

Almost everywhere you look on the web, you’ll see sans-serif typefaces. They have long been the standard for on-screen text due to their increased readability on 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 is sometimes 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 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.

Difference Between Grotesque and Humanist Typefaces

Grotesque and humanist typefaces are both sans-serif, but their stylistic differences are 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 organic and calligraphic looking of them all. Their characters have the greatest line width variations and the most contrast in shape, making them the 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 to can choose from. But before you choose, ask yourself whether reading speed is of prime concern for the user’s task. If so, go with a humanist typeface that’s proven to shave off time spent fixating on a screen. Choosing a typeface isn’t always about interface aesthetics. Sometimes it’s about user readability and safety, which are far more important to the human race.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Carl Hays Reply

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

  2. Sean Reply

    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?

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