I’ve got a question for you: While studying or working, have you ever noticed that sometimes is easier or more difficult to read but you don’t know why? Have you ever opened a webpage or a book and felt, “I can’t read this”, even though you were really interested in it?
I had; and I’ve found that our inability to focus on something we need and want to read could be related to the type of font used in the text; in my case, it actually is.
New! Don’t miss this new take on the matter, more ADHD friendly and also with more information. You can come back later!
Check out these two screenshots and see which one seems more compelling to you, more soothing to your eyes:
Did you feel a difference?
What Matters in the Legibility of a Text?
In any given copy, what matters the most is basically:
- the type of font (for instance, “Times New Roman” is a “Serif” type of font; “Arial” is a “Sans” type of font;)
- the line height (the space between the lines in a paragraph)
- and the color (the contrast between the text and its background)
For the purpose of what I’ll be sharing with you, we’re going to assume that a text has a nice line height and color contrast; and, we’re going to focus on the difference of the type of Fonts.
The Difference Between Serif Fonts and Sans Serif Fonts
Amongst the different type of fonts , the ones which are used more often are two: the “serif” fonts and the “sans serif” fonts. The main difference between them is the small lines attached or not to the letters; serif fonts have these lines and sans fonts don’t.
Serif fonts give us a sense of professionalism, an old-school kind of writing; while Sans fonts look more informal but also clearer.
We could go deeper to discover more differences, but our eyes don’t lie. Here’s a list I made of my favorite fonts:
Learning How to Write and Read
I began noticing the difference of those fonts when I was in Law School; presenting our papers in “Times New Roman” was mandatory and, by some reason, there was something about it that bothered me. Eventually, I tried writing in “Arial” and I felt something like “Wow; now I can see.”
I’m going to take you a little bit back in time, so we can understand where this difference comes from and why it matters.
From Block Letters to the Cursive Style
When we’re children, we begin learning to write with block letters; which is no brainer: we learn the letters of the alphabet one by one, and then we begin to put them next to each other to create a word. Eventually, teachers make us move on to the cursive style because “it looks more professional and that’s how adults do it.” 
I switched from pencil to pen and from block letters to cursive style, during my first year of primary school; I remember many of my classmates (if not most of them) struggled a lot with the change, but I didn’t… Calligraphy class was “art” for me; I wanted to be a writer and that was my pass; I simply loved it.
I also believe – when it comes to my ADHD – that the change wasn’t difficult for two more reasons:
- one, the high-protein diet we need, is basically the daily diet in Argentina (where I grew up);
- two, the need of draining my hyperactivity so I could focus, was also being taken care of; I was outside climbing trees and running all day long, and I started doing sports at seven.
From Analog to the Screen
I loved writing in cursive, but it was hard to read from it; so when I got to College and I had the freedom to take notes as I’d like: I started writing with block letters again and I left the ink for the sinful “Bic rollerball pen” (I went to a private catholic school; using a rollerball pen was a ticket to the confessional)
But later, technology arrived; we had to start typing our papers on our computers using the mandatory “Times New Roman” font. During the late 90’s, it was trendy when “trendy” wasn’t even a word, and I…, I simply didn’t like it; it didn’t feel like my own writing.
Somehow and at some point I typed my notes using the Arial font… and it felt different; I printed them and studied from them, and – as I said – I felt I could finally “see”. The text looked so clear; and it was like I didn’t even need to pay real attention to what I was reading because the keywords would just pop up from the text. So, I sticked to it.
What’s Out There: Designing for ADHD
When I started writing again and opened my blog, I used the “Adobe Carlson” font (a serif font); that’s the one the New Yorker – one of my favourites magazines – uses and I love it. In fact, the Serif fonts are so beautiful that most websites with serious writing – sort of speak – use.
But then, after having published my second post on How ADHD saved me from a lifetime of trauma, one day I tried to read it and I couldn’t get to the second paragraph, of my own post! And so, that old thought came to my mind, “the Arial’s clarity;” and the question, “Could the font style be messing with my legibility?”
Besides Poole (2020) who wrote about the legibility of serif and sans serif fonts , I believe Mc. Knight (2010) is worth reading; in “Designing for ADHD: in search of guidelines,” she mentions the use of “large print (12-14 point) and clear sans-serif font such as Arial.” 
I went over the bibliography she used, dug a little more and found out that this idea comes from guidelines used to print children’s books; sans fonts are clear for children and that’s why designers use them. The literature on that is quite abundant, but when it comes to legibility for neurodivergents (with ADHD in this case) there’s a huge void.
My ADHD and the Rounded Fonts
After having read the first study, I didn’t think it twice. I downloaded the Open Sans Font (by Google) and I installed it on every single software I use; and I saw the light; a whole paragraph was clear as water for me to pick up keywords. Still, it was a big change for me; I even felt at first I wasn’t writing “something worth of a writer,” but then… look at me posting!
Later I payed a visit to my psychiatrist – who has ADHD too – and without giving him a hint, I started asking him about his experience in Med School; I believe the first thing he said was, “I hated Times New Roman!”
My ADHD guts never lied to me (It’s one of our superpowers!); so, before I procrastinate and jump into writing a thesis, I’m going to leave my humble hypothesis here, “The use of sans fonts improves the legibility for people with ADHD.”
Improving the Legibility for People With ADHD
As I said at the beginning, many factors influence the legibility of the text besides its font; such us the line height and the color contrast; furthermore, when we visit websites with pop ups and without a consistent color palette, or when we read a PDF file with huge logos and images, it all really gets in the middle of our attention.
The world has changed and we don’t know if or when things are going to be as they were; now we find ourselves living in front of a screen and teaching our children with digital devices when the ADHD brain craves for the analog.
Thus, if the use of sans serif fonts influences the legibility for people with ADHD, this could make another huge impact in our lives; just by changing the fonts I use, my quality of life changed; I’m a writer, all I do is to read and write, and now I can do it effortless. I humbly believe that now, more than ever, this should be at least be a topic to put under discussion.
If you’ve read something or know better than me, or if you think you could help with this research (by defining variables and etc) please enlighten me in the comments or contact me.
If you’d like to try the fonts on your computer, check out how to install them from my Blogging Toolkit
 Adobe classifies the fonts in eight (8) categories, and Google in five (5)
 Poole, Axel. Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces? [Last visit: May 2020]
 As I was researching for this post, it surprised me to find out that the cursive style is in the past; its teaching no longer matters in many countries; furthermore, in some states of the United States there is even a debate on whether to bring that teaching back or not. Rueb, Emily (2019) “Cursive Seemed to Go the Way of Quills and Parchment. Now It’s Coming Back”. NY Times. URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/13/education/cursive-writing.html [Las Visit: May 2020]
 McKnight, Lorna (2010) “Designing for ADHD: in search of guidelines”. URL: http://homepage.divms.uiowa.edu/~hourcade/idc2010-myw/mcknight.pdf [Last Visit: May 2020]
As a typographer, book designer, and font nerd (and person with ASD/ADD), I think is a great take! The art of designing for legibility unfortunately has been lost.
I’d like to add some further factors that I think are also important.
– Times Roman is an inappropriate font for almost anything but the narrow columns of the London Times, for which it was designed in the 1930s. It should never have been foisted on us the way it was; us sensitive types are right to reject its use as the default serif font. Same for Helvetica. (The reason Times & Helvetica are popular are not because they were ‘the best,’ but because Adobe Inc. was able to license them at a good rate in the 1980s for the early Laserwriter printer.)
– Unfortunately I don’t have a reference at hand, but a preference for serif vs. sans-serif fonts may have cultural biases. That is, what you find legible depends on the dominant style in the area (and in the literature) you learned to read. There are other factors too, from the geometric design onwards, of course, but I think this is important.
– In addition to typeface, line height, and color/contrast, other important factors that affect legibility and understanding are line length and surrounding whitespace (i.e., margins). In our current digital ecosystem, line lengths often are way, WAY too long — and the fonts are too small and too light. If you go back to the ‘golden age’ of printed books (ca. 1920s-1960s), you’ll find line lengths to be relatively short and surrounded by plenty of whitespace in both line height and margins. (Also medium-contrast typefaces printed well on off-white paper, generally.) It depends on the typeface, but a general rule of thumb for line length is 1.5-2x the width of the alphabet in the given point size, or about 40-60 characters. Anything longer than that, and our eyes lose track of where to move to next.