Catalog Doctor: Good Readability Makes a Healthy Catalog
Young designers will bring up recent readability studies showing sans-serif type winning. But those are for computer screens, not print-on-paper. Print renders type differently than a computer screen. Sans-serif type renders better than serif on a computer because all the little points (serifs) can mush up in pixels. Serifs are more crisp in print. Just because you found sans-serif type works better on your website doesn't mean you should print it in your catalog.
The extra shapes on the ends of serif letters add to its readability by helping the brain discern differences in letter shape instantly. Before readers are even conscious of it, their brains identify words and their meanings at skimming speed. Sans-serif type is cleaner with fewer shape differences, and therefore has fewer visual cues for your reader's subconscious brain to translate — meaning fewer words are translated in the high-speed catalog skimmer's brain.
The end result is that serif body copy tends to get higher recognition of key words and phrases than sans-serif during quick skimming. More word/phrase recognition means more chances for customers to become interested in something on the page. When they become interested, it's more likely they'll read the copy for a given product, which makes it more likely they'll buy.
The better your copy's readability, the more your response will increase. What if you could lift response 5 percent simply by switching fonts? You'd get an immense return on almost no investment.
The fashion in print right now is toward "clean" sans-serif fonts. Designers will often argue that people have seen sans fonts for so long that they've been trained to read sans as easily as serif, but that's a fallacy. Every decade someone makes that same argument — this was a big contention back in the '70s and '80s as well — and each time it's been proven wrong. We're talking basic brain chemistry at the subconscious level. The way the subconscious human brain decodes shapes and renders them into concepts hasn't changed in 10,000 years.
Susan J. McIntyre is Founder and Chief Strategist of McIntyre Direct, a catalog agency and consultancy in Portland, Oregon offering complete creative, strategic, circulation and production services since 1991. Susan's broad experience with cataloging in multi-channel environments, plus her common-sense, bottom-line approach, have won clients from Vermont Country Store to Nautilus to C.C. Filson. A three-time ECHO award winner, McIntyre has addressed marketers in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, has written and been quoted in publications worldwide, and is a regular columnist for Retail Online Integration magazine and ACMA. She can be reached at 503-286-1400 or email@example.com.