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I recently had a coworker mention that we might prefer selecting a handful of familiar fonts for some built-in themes for a software application we are developing over a handful of other potential font choices (for example, Georgia over ET Book, an open-source Bembo clone) because he recalled that he had read somewhere that familiar typefaces are easier to read than unfamiliar ones. Can anyone help source a reference for this assertion (or sources for the opposite idea, namely typical considerations of typeface legibility)?

Ignoring goofy, extreme, illegible or tasteless fonts (Comic Sans, Papyrus, Arial -- all problematic for their own sakes) on the familiar side as well as lousy, poor, crazy fonts on the unfamiliar side, my understanding is that font choice depends mostly on the use case itself (body v. title), the quality and readability of the font itself, how it is applied (font size, letter-spacing, line-spacing), document-wide consistency, etc.

Like I said, ignoring really weird fonts or poorly designed fonts, is there any reason to prefer broadly familiar ones over potentially better-designed, high-quality fonts? (I can't imagine a typographer ever uttering such a Familiar Implies Readable mantra, lest no one buy her fonts!)

Is there any other non-legal and non-technology-related reason (assume we have that licked -- we could ship and enable both TTFs or WOFFs as appropriate) to prefer a widely familiar font if other choices are available, all things being equal? The only thing I could come up with is that it might be a little distracting to be reading a new font (especially body copy), thus drawing a little attention to itself, or that the reader has already internalized a representation of familiar fonts in their visual cortex? (No sources for this, just applying some brainstorming.)

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    As you seem to acknowledge yourself, what makes a font good is not how familiar or widespread it may be, but rather the quality of the font itself. A good font will be legible no matter how unfamilar, though a 'good' font is still rather broad as it may change per use case. – Hanna Oct 13 '15 at 18:43
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    I would say with almost 100% certainly that the answer is no, there is no reason why an unfamiliar font would be more difficult to read. The majority of the population [I’m guesstimating—quite a lot of people, at least] are not able to even see that there is a difference between Times and Garamond, much less if they happen to have read anything set in the current font before. I am, sadly, unable to provide you with any actual sources that state this outright. If I were you, I’d challenge your coworker instead to provide a source that such a difference does exist—I doubt he’ll find one. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 13 '15 at 18:44
  • This may not necessarily answer your question but it's an interesting perspective on legibility. Basically, the way we view letterforms can be compared to how we listen to music. General strokes and larger/lucid forms are more perceptible in harsher viewing conditions. blog.justanotherfoundry.com/2014/06/… – johnp Oct 14 '15 at 21:11
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Your colleague is in error, as you already know. :) Try to gauage why he/she may be steering you in this direction. His 'positioning' may be due to the budget implications; some fonts may cost money to license, there would be an cost-increase to testing (what if it didn't display in IE x.x?), has your team done an implementation using embedded fonts previously (learning curve = $$$). Is the application a desktop install, SaaS, etc? In some scenarios, the quick, cheap answer is to use an OS based font. But it costs us our souls... ;)

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