When reading in some American university text books (the first example that comes to my mind being Young and Freedman's University Physics), I notice how much it uses sans-serif all over the place, for headers, figure captions, graphics, etc., practically everywhere except the main text. The design is so complex that there is no doubt in my mind that a professional designer has been involved. Yet what strikes me is how ugly I actually think it looks; having to go in and out of "sans mode" all the time (as well as adjusting to different text sizes, fonts, shapes, weights, text colours, and background colours, for that matter) simply disturbs my eye. I cannot remember the last time I even used sans fonts myself.

Can someone provide me with a good design-based reason why, when typesetting a book with main text in serif, using sans occasionally is a good idea? As a book designer, which positive effects would you say that using sans can have? (Because, sorry, but I find them hard to see.)


4 Answers 4


Quite often designers will pair serif and sans typefaces to create contrast between elements. Serif typefaces will be used for the main body of text because the serifs draw the eye and make reading large blocks of text much easier, whereas sans-serifs will be used, much like you described, for headings and figure descriptions etc. It helps the reader easily differentiate between different pieces of text and assign varying levels of importance.

Designers will also use different font weights...

or sometimes styles...

or decorations...

to communicate a hierarchy amongst page elements.

  • I appreciate the visual styles you've applied to your answer to emphasize the point.
    – bemdesign
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 3:26

That you consider sans-serif hard to see is, alas, really just your opinion. Everyone has preferences, and designers can't possibly cater to everyone's individual preference. As such, they decide to do the best they can with what they have and hope they hit the broadest spectrum of users possible.

As for sans-serif typefaces, we've been using them extensively in print for a few hundred years now. As such, I don't think the population necessarily shares your opinion that they are 'hard to see'.

A designer chooses a particular typeface for a number of reasons:

  • personal preference
  • context
  • contrast with other typefaces
  • harmony with other typefaces
  • legibility
  • layout/spacing needs
  • history
  • habit
  • tradition

In the case of mixing sans and serif in the same publication, they are merely different ingredients that the designer has decided work well together for that particular need.


Not having seen the layout, I cannot speak as to whether or not it is a well designed piece. With that said however, there is a school of thought in Design that serif fonts are easier to read in large, dense bodies of copy (such as what you would find in a textbook or a newspaper). Although this hasn't been scientifically proven, it may a matter of comfort for many, as a majority of Westerners are used to viewing the written word in this way.

As for the intermixing of type styles, best practice often follows the mantra, "Less is more." While it is not uncommon to use a single serif typeface, and a single sans-serif typeface to visual create contrast (allowing one to be quickly distinguished from the other), this can also be achieved through color, weight, and size. Attempting to use of all of these methods in a single layout will undoubtedly create unnecessary visual busyness that will ultimately make the text harder to read.


I cannot comment on the aesthetic value of serif vs. sans-serif, or their mixing, but as others here have noted, serifs do reduce eye fatigue: The reader unconsciously tracks the text line by using the horizontal serifs at top and bottom of the type stroke. Sans-serif fonts consume more physiological energy (however incremental and unnoticeable) when experienced either in large dense blocks or over extended periods of time.

On the other hand, sans-serif fonts fit the "flat" design look that tech firms strive to achieve in order to reinforce the sense of slim, clean, "disappearing" hardware.

In the age of 140-character communications, the distinction between serif and sans-serif— at least from a physiological-linguistic standpoint— may become less a factor for typographic design.

  • "serifs do reduce eye fatigue" = there is no real evidence of this. It's more of an assumed myth.
    – DA01
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 17:00

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