Tag Archives: fonts

To Serif or Not to Serif

The debate of whether or not to use serifs in fonts has raged almost since Gutenberg invented the printing press back in 1440. What are serifs, you may ask? Serifs are the little decorative marks on letters, like the bars on the top and bottom of the capital “I”. Sans-serif literally means “without serifs”.

Since I write both fiction and rulebooks, I looked through an assortment of our roleplaying books and novels, and also some boardgame rules.

In our roleplaying books serifs are very dominant. I checked a sampling of our GURPS 3/4e, D&D 4e, OVA, and HackMaster 4/5e books, and they were exclusively serif fonts other than tables and sidebars in HM; sidebars, examples, and sample characters in OVA; and monster blocks in D&D. In other words, they use serifs unless the text is small enough that the serifs might make it harder to read.

Possibly the oldest novel in our collection is my much-loved and rather battered 1978 edition of Heinlein’s Space Cadet. It uses sans-serif for chapter headings and page headers, but serifs otherwise. My wife’s 2013 library book is the same – and some people say that’s the problem, but I’ll go into that shortly.

Boardgame rules are less cohesive simply because they come in a number of formats: sheet or two of paper, pamphlet, booklet, the box or similar material (Ultimate Stratego’s rules are written on the card used to divide the board while players set up). From what I have seen, those that print on card- or pasteboard tend to use serifs, while those on simple paper don’t. Munchkin uses fonts that fit the game’s mood, resulting in a mixture of serif and sans fonts in booklets. Pyramid Arcade includes a 75-page rulebook, entirely in sans serif.

The serif debate is as nuanced as any, but most people seem to fall into one of two groups:
* In long lines of uninterrupted text serif fonts are easier to read because the serifs help guide the eye.
* Sans-serif fonts are “cleaner”, and therefore easier to read. Serif fonts only seem easier to read because they are what we are used to.

I fall into that first group, but also agree that sans-serif fonts look “cleaner”, but in mixed case sans serifs can be confusing. Think of how the word Illinois looks without its serifs. In all caps or or all lowercase it doesn’t matter, but in mixed case capital “I” and lowercase “l” look exactly the same.

As a compromise I have developed the habit of using sans-serif (Arial for screen or Verdana for print) for headings, especially if they are all caps, and serif (Times New Roman) for text. Purely out of curiosity, I mocked up a fake page from my roleplaying game’s rulebook with one written completely in Times New Roman (right), and the other with Verdana headings (left).

Font Test with mock up of rpg rulebook page

So which do you prefer?