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Ken Magill

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Okay, So I Lost the Serif War; Can We Just Make it Readable?

5/27/14
 
By Ken Magill
 
One of the most prominent victims of online publishing was serif type.
 
Even though direct marketing tests had proven for decades that serif type—type with little squiggles on the letters—was far more readable than sans serif type such as Helvetica, designers used the Web as a reason to strip the squiggles en masse.
 
With the exception of some old-school newspaper sites like the New York Times’ and the Washington Post’s, the serifs are largely gone.
 
When I argued in a column for serifs in the late 90s, designers responded with some lame-assed argument that the computer screen was different than paper because it’s back-lit.
 
I though the argument was crap then. I think it’s crap now.
 
But I do know when a battle is lost—or even the war. To any literate person with a set of eyes, it is clear the fight for serif type is lost.
 
The squiggles are gone and they’re probably not coming back unless online publishing goes through some highly unlikely retro-movement.
 
However, apparently unsatisfied with eliminating serifs to create a cleaner look—notice I didn’t say more readable—designers have taken their drive for aesthetically pleasing copy a step further.
 
They’ve reduced the size of the type to the point where anyone over 40 struggles to read it.
 
Sure, it looks good. But it doesn’t do its job. Most designers don’t think of copy as a means to convey information. They think of it as images on a page to be manipulated.
 
I swear if most designers truly had their way, the copy would look like this: IIIIIIIIIIIIII IIIIIII IIIII IIIIIIIII III. Oh wait, that’s too big. I swear if most designers truly had their way, the copy would look like this: IIIIIIIIIIIIII IIIIIII IIIII IIIIIIIII III.
 
Hang on. That’s not right either. I swear if most designers truly had their way, the copy would look like this: IIIIIIIIIIIIII IIIIIII IIIII IIIIIIIII III.
 
A good white paper can cost thousands of dollars in copy writing services alone. I know. I sell them. 
 
A white paper by definition is aimed at trying to snare the sustained attention of business decision makers. Decision makers are usually not in their 20s.
 
People generally start needing bifocals about the time they hit 40, probably pretty close to the average age of business decision makers.
 
As a result, white papers are aimed at a segment of the business population a large portion of whose eyesight has naturally deteriorated.
 
Is it wise to spend thousands of dollars on copy just to spend more money to have it rendered practically illegible to such a large segment of its target?
 
Should a white paper’s design elements remind a large segment of its target readership how negatively age is impacting them?
 
Should it make them consider their mortality? How fast their kids grew up? What they would have done differently if they could do it all over again? Should it remind them that when they woke up this morning, they woke up one day closer to being dead?
 
Yeah, yeah. I know. I referenced mortality twice in that last paragraph.
 
But those are the kinds of thoughts that go through people’s minds when they’re reminded of some age-related shortcoming such as their eyesight isn’t what it used to be. 
 
Do everyone a favor, designers. You got a pass on the serifs. Please at least make the type big enough and contrast it enough to the background so us old farts can read it without being reminded of how old and close to dead we are.
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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Amy
Date: 2014-05-28 12:53:18
Subject: serifs

I can only hope that there is an underground battle raging for the use of serifs - and the banishment of gray text. Not to mention the misguided use of tight leading. I know I fight for legibility as often as possible.

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