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ADHD and the Use of Sans Fonts: Do They Make a Real Impact on the Legibility?

Now more than ever, forced to work and study with digital devices, it’s time to wonder if certain font styles influence the legibility in people with ADHD.

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”? I had.

And do you know what I’ve found? That it could have nothing to do with a boring topic or our tiredness; it could happen because our ADHD brain doesn’t like the type of font from which we are reading.

We all know our brain prefers analog over digital, it needs us to write down with our bare hands what we want to save up there; but what if we can’t? In times like these when we are in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, living on line and homeschooling our children with a screen, the legibility could be one of the main issues we should address.

In this post, I’m going to introduce you to the fonts we’ll have under the scope, share with you a little bit of my history and what I’ve found.

The Difference Between Serif Fonts and Sans Serif Fonts

There are different type of fonts [1], but what matters to us are those who are used most often: 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; sans fonts don’t.

At plain sight, we can see that the serif fonts give us a sense of professionalism, an old-school kind of writing, but sans fonts look clearer; we can go deeper to discover more differences[2], but our eyes don’t lie. Here’s a list I made of my favorite fonts:

From Block Letters to the Cursive Style

When we learn to write we start with block letters, which is no brainer: if we are learning what letters are, we should have them separated, right? “Come one by one, little fellas.” Then, we move on to the cursive style because “it looks more professional and that’s how adults do it.”

It came as a big surprise to me finding out that that was in the past, that the teaching of the cursive style no longer matters in many countries and that in some states of the United States there is even a debate on whether to bring that teaching back or not.[3]

I switched from pencil to pen and from block letters to cursive style, during my first year of primary school; I remember many (if not most) of my classmates struggled a lot with the change, but I didn’t… Why? Because Calligraphy class was “art” for me; I wanted to be a writer and that was my pass… I loved it.

I also believe – when it comes to my ADHD – that the change wasn’t difficult for two more reasons: one, the diet high in protein that we need is basically the daily diet in Argentina; two, I was outside climbing trees and loosing milk-teeth 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 then, technology arrived; we had to start typing our papers on our computers using the mandatory “Times New Roman” font (a serif font) During the late 90’s, Times New Roman 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.

Therefore, one day I rebelled! I typed my notes using the Arial font; I printed them and studied from them, and it felt great. I felt free; it was like I didn’t even need to pay real attention to what I was reading because the words would just jump into my brain. So, I sticked to it.

When ADHD Gets in The Middle

The Serif fonts are beautiful, so that’s we see most often in websites (at least in those with serious writing, sort of speak) The New Yorker for instance, uses the “Adobe Carlson” and since I love both the paper and the font, I installed it on my blog.

But then, this past February, after having published my second post at this blog, I wanted to read it (to enjoy it and get another dose of reward, “what a great job you did”) but I couldn’t get to the second paragraph, of my own post! 

And so, that old thought came to my mind, “the Arial’s freedom;” and the question, “Could the font style be messing my legibility?” Here’s what I’ve found:

Children and Sans Fonts

First, I came across a study from Mc. Knight, “Designing for ADHD: in search of guidelines,”[4] where 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 people with ADHD there’s a huge void, one that I believe we should address… and I have two subjects on my research so far!

ADHD and Rounded Fonts

After reading 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.”

It Cannot Be Only Me

I say “my” humble hypothesis, but I refuse to believe I’m the only one researching about this. So please, if you’ve read something or know better than me, enlighten me in the comments or contact me.

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 change; I’m a writer, all I do is to read and write, and now can do it effortless.

I think about you and those of us who work in front of a screen all day; but when I think about the impact this could have on our children, it gives me the goosebumps.

Now more than ever, when we are in quarantine and we’re homeschooling our children with digital devices, this should be at least be a topic to put under discussion.

Would you help me with a simple start?

Whether you see a difference in the use of the fonts or not, if you’d like to contribute with this humble research, please take this quick questionary.

If you’d like to try the fonts on your computer, check out how to install them from my Blogging Toolkit

If you’d like to help me with this research (defining variables and etc), please contact me.


[1] Adobe classifies the fonts in eight (8) categories, and Google in five (5)

[2] Poole, Axel. Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces? [Last visit: May 2020]

[3] 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]

[4] 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]

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