The role of serifs at a distance
At great reading distances, serifs at the vertical extremes of letters can improve the legibility of the individual character.
The experiment looked into the distance identification of the lowercase letters ‘j’, ‘i’, ‘l’, ‘b’, ‘h’, ‘n’, ‘u’ and ‘a’ in isolation. All the letters originate in the same typeface and are presented in one version with serifs and one version without serifs.
The investigation found no difference in the distance legibility of sans versus serif typeface styles when we studied the collective results of the individual letters.
However, looking at a group of letters with serifs at the vertical extremes, the experiment showed higher distance legibility when these letters have serifs on the stems; this demonstrates that having serifs on the stem plays a central role in facilitating legibility at great distances.
The data further indicates that serifs on the counter of ‘h’ and on both ends of the stem of ‘i’ cause a higher rate of misreadings, where these letters are misread as ‘b’ and ‘l’, respectively.
The findings as a whole suggest that serifs should not always be applied in the conventional fashion, as in traditional Old Style and Didone typefaces; instead they can facilitate higher distance legibility if they are placed in a semi-serif fashion, that is, at relevant stroke endings.
Centre for Visibility Design
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts,
Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation
School of Design
Philip de Langes Allé 10
1435 København K
M +45 41 70 18 83