Choosing a Typeface for Online Documentation: Times New Roman vs. Arial

By Ryan Walters

Picture this: a computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and you, scanning what seems to be endless text that may as well go on forever. As you are reading you find yourself squinting to see some words that are difficult to read. About the time you reach the middle of the text you realize that you are not reading as quickly as you could. You decide that you need to increase the text size, but now there is a constant click of your mouse as you have to scroll twice as quickly to keep up with your reading. Could all of this have been avoided? Yes, and the answer is a simple solution that can be done quickly and easily during or after the document has been created. This answer lies in the typeface the author uses. Although there are hundreds of typefaces available, there are only a select few that are used for reading on a computer. Choosing the right typeface for reading on a computer is important, because it will affect the way your readers perceive your page; as serious and formal, or friendly and casual. But most important is whether or not the reader can read the information.

A quick history lesson shows that Verdana was the typeface shipped with Internet Explorer 3, which was released in August of 1996. About this time online help for various software programs was becoming readily available. Verdana is a san serif typeface (sans serif typefaces do not have the small lines at the ends of each character and because of this each letter may have a different width) and was the Internet typeface of choice for several years because of its exceptional on-screen readability. But, even though Verdana is a common Internet typeface eventually the two most commonly used paper-based typefaces, Times New Roman and Arial, began taking over online documentation (Bernard et al. 2003).

In their study, Bernard et al, focused on the readability and legibility of varying 10- and 12-point sizes of both Times and Arial on computer monitors. Interesting results included that there were no legibility issues with either of the typefaces at the two sizes. Also, both sizes of the Arial typeface were read slower in all conditions, but the 12-point Arial typeface was the preferred typeface in all conditions. Finally, all participants stated that the 12-point size was more legible, for both typefaces, in all conditions. Conclusions from post-trial interviews found that sans serif typefaces as a whole have better perceived readability, and readers would like to see all websites convert over.

Another study, done by Kingery and Furuta (1997), had participants skim online newspaper headlines comparing four typefaces, which included Times New Roman, Arial, Book Antiqua, and Century Gothic. Of the four, the two that were most often preferred were Times and Arial. When a comparison between the two was made, Arial edged out Times as the favorite with regards to readability and legibility. Participants were noted as saying that the serifs caused the reader to focus more on separate words of the headline instead of the title as a whole.

Both of these studies support that Times and Arial are the most commonly used Internet typefaces, but that is where the similarities end. Based on these studies, Arial is more readable and legible while doing on-screen reading, even though readers were not able to read as quickly. As reading on a computer is becoming more and more common, the choice of typeface has become crucial, and Arial seems to be the userís preferred typeface. When designing any online documentation, ideally typeface should be the least of your concerns, but as it is seen here there are aspects that make some typefaces better than others.

 

Sources

Bernard, M., Chaparro, B., Mills, M., and Halcomb, C. 2003. Comparing the effects of text size and format on the readability of computer-displayed Times New Roman and Arial text. International Journal of Human Computer Studies 59: 823-835.

Kingery, D. and Furuta, R. 1997. Skimming electronic newspaper headlines: a study of typeface, point size, screen resolution, and monitor size. Information Processing and Management 33 (5): 685-696.