Despite the undeniable appeal of sans serif faces, they are not suitable for extended reading. Their sharp corners, apparent uniform weight, and lack of horizontal emphasis reduce legibility and thus comprehension. A text set in the most handsome sans serif is more difficult to read than one set in a mediocre old-style or transitional face.
To put it simply, the eye perceives images at their boundaries. It is here that the chromatic data, and the ratios of reflectance are measured by the receptors, which respond only to changing visual messages. A smooth line has boundaries along only one axis, whereas a rough line extends the boundaries into an additional dimension. If the number of boundaries is increased, the visibility of that image will increase proportionately. A serif face can be thought of as a rough line, and a sans serif as a clean one. For reading, the former is preferable; since there is more of it, it is easier to see.
Furthermore, perfectly sharp and regular typefaces can create optical illusions on the page that subliminally interfere with reading. An exaggerated example of this is the classic optical illusion of grey dots appearing at intersections of regularly spaced black squares. This illusion occurs when reading texts set in both Helvetica and Optima. The very regularity and perfection of these clean, modern typefaces is their own greatest enemy.
The blackletter of Gutenberg's 42-line Bible set a precedent for German type design that persisted into the twentieth century with Fraktur and Schwabacher types, which are hard to read. They have a pronounced vertical emphasis, and hordes of little spiky doo dads poking out of every nook and cranny. It is precisely because of this that a page set in blackletter is a formidable barrier to legibility. Rather than providing too little information, they confuse the eye with too much. The avant-garde rejected the old-fashioned bramble thicket of blackletter and set out to create new typefaces.
The resulting faces, designed by the Bauhaus and related schools, are the sans serifs that we have come to associate with modernity and progress. They are plain and severe, of apparent uniform weight, and without extraneous details, such as serifs. It might be thought that these new designs are as removed from the dark medieval types of Gutenberg as they could possibly be, but as far as the appearance of the page and levels of legibility and comprehension go, they are equal, if not worse. The offensive spikes and curlicues are gone and have been succeeded by hard, sharp corners. The vertical emphasis is even greater than that of blackletter, and the horizontal emphasis provided by the serif, which enhances legibility, is nonexistent.
Legibility relies mainly on the top part of the letter: if you cover the bottom half of a line of type, you can usually still read what was printed; if you cover the top half, the type generally becomes illegible. It would appear that the thornbush of blackletter has been exchanged for the more modern barbed wire entanglement of sans serif. Not only is there is less differentiation between letters in a serif face, but within the letters themselves, there is little difference between the top half and the bottom half.
The perfect compromise between blackletter and modern sans serif is a typeface with rounded serifs, a modest contrast between thick and thin elements, and a roughened line. Tried and true are Bembo, Caslon, and Times New Roman. The typefaces of Hermann Zapf err in the direction of their equally calligraphic blackletter grandparents. Optima has no real serif, and too much contrast between thick and thin. Although Palatino has serifs, they are sharp and square. Furthermore, Palatino shares the high contrast defects of Optima. These types are not highly legible, and are therefore not suitable for body work.
In designs dependent on hard, sharp contrasts, the slightest imperfection is annoying and obvious. With rough lines, imperfection, wear, and dirt are less noticeable, often not bothersome, and occasionally enhancing. If type is to be printed under less than favorable conditions, such as by photo-offset, gravure, or Xerox, a serif face is always better.
Caslon can be read quickly, and with high comprehension, for long periods of time. Helvetica gives you a headache. Things set in Caslon get read, things set in Helvetica get looked at.
David Lance Goines
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