Serifs? We Don’t Need no Stinking Serifs!

You may have noticed that Sackadoo bucks a trend that started some fifteen or so years ago, and this was deliberate. It’s an artistic uprising, a one-person revolution if you will. Yes, despite sans-serif becoming the norm these days on the Internet, in technical books and other places too weird to mention, here you’ll find any text that isn’t a heading, title or label presented in a serif font as opposed to a sans-serif font.

And if you care to know why this typographical rebellion came about, here’s a little story…

Back in 1995, I found myself out of work. Being a highly-trained artist, a graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design, I was well suited to jobs such as:

  • digging ditches,
  • driving a taxi, and
  • (the job I’d just been laid off from) warehouse personnel.

Shortly after getting my walking papers, I found myself staring at a job board with an ad that said something like:

LEARN DESKTOP PUBLISHING (DTP!)
EARN MONEY!
ENTERTAIN YOUR FRIENDS!
CONQUER THE WORLD!

I thought to myself, gee whiz, I own a computer and it’s on top of my desk. I wouldn’t mind taking over the world if somebody paid me to do it.

So, off I went and applied for yet-more training the value of which was questionable and far from certain.

Two weeks later, I found myself sitting in a classroom full of hopefuls learning The Rules of Typography from actual professional designers. And what was Rule #1?

Rule #1: Thou shalt pitch all thy type in a legible font.

Yeah, the really old typographic designers talked like that. I swear.

The day we were presented with this rule, we were given an in-class assignment using Ventura Publisher. Half the class—by sheer coincidence, I’m sure—used serif fonts. We were the lucky ones. The other half, who’d used sans-serif, got one of the most stern and demeaning lectures I’d ever heard. Here it is (sans cursing and belittlement) boiled down to its essence:

Thou shalt not use a sans-serif font for anything other than titles and headings. Ever. Sans-serif is not a legible font.

This was news to most of us. Sans-serif not a legible font? What blasphemy is this? Look at it! I’m looking right now and I can read the damned thing!

But rather than contradict, most of us frowned at our hands or pretended to think of things more important.

But one bold person, way at the back of the room, an older and slightly overweight blonde woman named Sharon (I think), someone we all thought of as our student rep… sort of… Sharon stuck her hand up and said, “Why?”

A collective gasp sucked air from the room. Pens dropped (and we heard them, it was that quiet). The timid crossed their legs, not wanting to risk asking permission to go to the toilet.

All eyes turned to Ms. Potter, our in-from-the-industry instructor, sure that fountains of printers’ ink would shoot from her eyes and drown Sharon where she sat.

The moment stretched on into the abyss of absolute silence. I risked a glance around at Sharon who sat, head tilted, squinting in askance.

Ms. Potter said, “The Romans introduced the serif as decoration, but as square capitals were adapted into handwriting, leading to the development of lowercase letters, the serif was found to aid in reading. Words became distinguishable by shape. And when type was formalized for use in printing presses, it was found that these word shapes were even easier to distinguish when serifs were used. That led to less eyestrain. And that’s why serif fonts are still around centuries later.”

Sharon asked, “So we’re stuck with this serif thingie?” I was beginning to suspect that Sharon had used sans-serif in completing the exercise.

“You’re not stuck with it, you’re blessed with it,” said Ms. Potter. “Anything that will make things easier for the reader is to be encouraged, don’t you think?”

Sharon glanced around, a smirk playing on her face, “Sans-serif looks better and looks are far more important than some stupid rule they came up with in the dark ages.”

Ms. Potter said, “Well, Sharon, it wasn’t the dark ages, it was the middle ages, the Renaissance, in fact, the dawn of a new enlightenment. There’s nothing wrong with embracing an old rule if it still makes sense. Modern composers still use the treble clef, farmers still plant after spring thaw, and professional designers still use serif fonts.”

But still Sharon wasn’t convinced. “I’ll use sans-serif if I want.”

Ms. Potter gazed back at Sharon, a slight smile playing across her lips. “Of course you will, Sharon. But I refuse to give out a passing grade for misuse of fonts. To do so would be tantamount to throwing away hundreds—if not thousands—of years of hard-won knowledge.”

Weeks later, after graduating, I couldn’t remember if Sharon had taken this to heart or not. I don’t now remember if she even graduated. But since that day, I’ve done some digging of my own into this whole question of serif vs. sans-serif and found one more tidbit:

When serif fonts are used, people read faster because they recognize words at a glance rather than having to reason them out one letter at a time. But when sans-serif fonts are used in long passages, the reader has to abandon recognition by shape or risk mistaking similarly shaped words for each other. This is especially so for words of six characters or more which makes typesetting technical books and web sites in a sans-serif font especially inexplicable.

Sadly, Sharon was ahead of her time. Less than a decade after we took that course, the rules of typography were unceremoniously tossed out rewritten and every person who has to wade through technical volumes has suffered for it ever since. At least they haven’t imposed this crap on fiction… yet.

I did eventually find work for a company in Vancouver doing web design, desktop publishing, and every other art department odd job that came along… except 3D. I would have loved to do that too, but I didn’t know the software.

And as for why this trend toward sans-serif happened, who can say? Perhaps serif fonts became too familiar (and don’t they say: familiarity breeds contempt?) leading Sharon to spearhead an entire movement into illegibility. It didn’t help that in those intervening years, an illiterate President came and went (proving that you don’t have to read to get ahead) and nerdy laziness took over the Internet with subsequent dropping of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. It’s all well and good that English has become the de facto universal language, but to see my mother tongue deteriorate in the hands of those who just don’t give a shit is disheartening. And to see it done in a sans-serif font is nigh on insulting.

Besides that—they must be thinking—why bother typesetting for readability when no one reads any more? Technical books are never read cover to cover. Even technical web sites are no more than references, dipped into after a Google search and left as soon as the search term pops up.

And why bother with legible fonts on a web site that most will skim, few will tarry on, and only one in a million will read. Because that one person actually gives a damn? Is that reason enough?

Well, I think so, which is why I decided to make this web site legible. Maybe you won’t stick around to read this entire blog post because the habit of skimming has become too strong. Or maybe you simply don’t give a shit what I have to say. Or perhaps your phone just beeped with a cute kitten photo far more important than such silly concerns as I bring before you.

Well, if you do care and you got this far, I assure you that here on this blog—when I actually get around to posting anything—you will find a bastion (hopefully not the last) of legibility standing like a beacon in a sea of trendy weirdness.

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