Choosing between serif vs sans serif is an age-old dilemma that still fazes many printers and graphic designers. Or, better said, it has been a dilemma ever since someone invented the first sans serif type, somewhere around 1925 – rumor has it, it had something to do with the Bauhaus Dessau designed by Herbert Bayer. Anyway, contrary to what many readers assume, the serif vs sans serif issue is not just a matter of taste. There is a strong case to be made for both types of font, depending on the context they’re used in.
When in print, choose serif
Although serif fonts have a more decorative look than sans serif fonts, those little horizontal lines finishing off the strokes of each letter actually do serve a purpose. Serifs, as these lines are called, make large blocks of texts more readable as they help the eye travel horizontally. (That said, not all serif fonts are more legible than sans serif fonts per se. Compare a sans serif font like Helvetica to a serif font like ITC Kallos and you’ll catch our drift.)
Oddly enough, the reverse is true when texts are published online. As monitors typically show around 100 dpi – whereas print usually has a resolution of 300 dpi and up – sans serif fonts are much more readable on the web than serif fonts. It must be said, though, that monitors are catching up in the dpi department. Nowadays, ‘retina’ and ‘5K’ displays have a far greater pixel density, which creates a dilemma: do you opt for a serif font and make your text extra legible on newer devices, or do you continue catering to older devices (which still make up the majority)? This is where digital analytics come in handy.
… but mind the size
In the case of small text (8.5 to 11 point), however, sans serif is the better option both on screen and in print. Serifs simply don’t always survive the printing process when they’re teeny-tiny. The same is true for serif fonts printed as reversed type.
… as well as the reader
Do you need to print text for the visually impaired or for children learning to read? Then sans serif is better option, as the shapes of the letters are more easily recognizable.