Set a sans serif font as the default

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Most web sites use sans serif type, such as Arial or Verdana or Tahoma. That's a difference between modern web sites and what has traditionally been used for paper documents.

A brief primer on fonts and type families

If you open the font list in your word processing program, you'll see a long list of available fonts. That list could be even longer; your list probably shows only some of the hundreds of fonts that have been developed.

All those hundreds of fonts, however, fall into two major categories (plus the unusual, artistic fonts that you would consider only for very special situations): serif and sans serif.

To appreciate the difference, look at a capital T in Times New Roman and in Tahoma.

serifs Times no serifs Tahoma

Serifs are the "arms" and "feet" that extend down and out on the letters of serif fonts. "Sans" is the French word for "without." Sans serif fonts don't have the arms and feet.

The old research on paper

Research with paper documents in the mid-twentieth century generally found that serif fonts were better for sustained reading. The explanation was that the serifs at the bottom of the letters draw the eye horizontally along the line of type.

However, relying on that research for your web content may not serve your site visitors well. Here are several reasons why that research may not carry over to modern web content:

• The research is now more than 50 years old.

• Serif fonts were the norm then. People had little familiarity with sans serif fonts.

• With just a point or two more space between lines of type ("leading" -a word from the days when printers put a slug of lead between rows of type), you can make even a paper document in sans serif very readable.

• Not all documents are meant for sustained reading. On the web, we break information into small pieces with small paragraphs, short sentences, lists, and tables.

(An aside: Even on paper, you may want to use sans serif. Brochures, forms, and instructions usually do very well in sans serif. This book is printed in Trade Gothic, a sans serif font.)

Researchers who work with low-vision readers recommend sans serif for both paper and web.

The new research on the web - no winner for reading speed or comprehension, but people prefer sans serif

Research on web content has not shown a consistent result for either reading speed or comprehension. Some studies found that people did better with serif fonts; others found that people did better with sans serif fonts; still others, that it made no difference.

In most of these studies, no matter which font people read fastest or comprehended best, people preferred sans serif. It may be familiarity; people see most sites in sans serif. It may be that a site in serif font looks like a paper document; it seems old-fashioned.

Choose an easy-to-read sans serif

Serif compared with sans serif is not the whole story.

Within each of those broad categories, typefaces differ in other features, such as how wide the rounded parts of letters like "b" and "d" are, how high lowercase letters like "x" are compared to the overall height of letters like "h," how clearly the typeface distinguishes between the letter "l" and the number "1," how close together the letters are to each other, and so on.

Even at the same point size, different fonts take up different amounts of space on the screen. Try it for yourself by typing the same sentence several times and then changing the font but not the point size for each rendition of the sentence.

Of course, you do not entirely control what your site visitors see. They may have their browser set to always show a particular font. However, as the default, select a highly legible sans serif font. Select one that most of your site visitors are likely to have available on their computers. If you choose an unusual font, most people won't see your pages in that font because browsers use only what the specific computer has available. Do usability testing to make sure your default results in legible pages.

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