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I want to know what characteristics are important for a typography for being used in subtitles. I'm talking about readability and not-so-important, about aesthetics.

How the fonts are chosen? I generally see Arial in media players and computer software. I suppose that this font is used because of its ubiquity, but I don't know if used only because of that.

  • Are you looking at something like foreign language subtitles, or closed captioning? – Evil Closet Monkey Apr 11 '16 at 4:10
  • Do you have control over the position of the subtitle? Do you know the spatial positions of actors? Do the subtitles contain IDs for the characters? Can they contain multiple font faces/variants, shadows, colors or pictures? Can they change the typeface dynamically? Are animation and transition effects available? For atmospheric reasons, you might want to choose a different style for a scifi action movie than for a love dramedy – or for different scenes or characters. Who pays for the efforts and how much – what‘S the RoI? Lots of variables. – Crissov Apr 11 '16 at 15:23
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An important point I would like to add is to have a soft shadow and a black outline on your text. The default subtitle font on one of my older televisions didn't have an outline nor a shadow and it made it very difficult to read the text.

Without an outline or shadow

enter image description here

With an outline and shadow

enter image description here

Source: Lights Film School

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No, Arial is not used just because of its ubiquity (at least not by publishing/communications professionals).

I remember while doing a lot of publishing work in the early to mid 2000s that we were instructed to use Arial or Verdana (both Sans Serif fonts) when authoring content to be read online. However, if we were publishing content for printed materials (e.g. books, newspapers, magazines, etc) we were supposed to use Serif fonts instead.

Dr. Ralph Wilson did some interesting research into the usage of fonts.

When people were surveyed on whether Times New Roman (a Serif font) or Arial (a Sans Serif font) was easier to read on a computer screen, the results were approximately 2:1 that Arial was much more readable.

These findings resulted in a new survey to compare Verdana and Arial, two different Sans Serif fonts. Interestingly, the results showed that at 12 pt Arial was easier to read, but when the sizes were reduced by two points, Verdana was much easier to read. Decreasing the font size further only increased the gap, so much so that at 9 pt Verdana was picked by 74% of those surveyed as being easier to read.

Going by the results in this survey, if your subtitles are for online purposes and they're 12pt or higher, then you should use Arial. On the other hand, if your subtitles are 10pt or smaller, you should use Verdana.

Of course, this changes again if you're talking about printed material, in which case I've always been led to believe one should use Serif fonts like Times New Roman.

If you're wanting to pick a font (rather than just choose between Arial and Verdana), perhaps the most important factors are to consider your audience and your content. For example, a serious medical report would not come across well if written in Comic Sans, although a kids party invite might look great using Comic Sans.

Other useful resources for you to consider are:

I hope this helps you somewhat. Good luck!

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    The reason for sans fonts on screen was down to low resolution screens, which handle higher detail serifs badly. In recent years with screen resolutions closer to print, serifs are coming back, although possibly not for subtitles just yet - nngroup.com/articles/serif-vs-sans-serif-fonts-hd-screens – Stephen Keable Apr 11 '16 at 7:23
  • Agreed. The gap between printed & screen resolutions is reducing & the battle between serif & sans will be redefined, but printed resolutions are also higher now than they used to be so there's still a perceptible gap in the quality. At some point we'll cross a line where the difference isn't noticeable by 99.9% of the population and I think we're getting pretty close to that now (although it may be a while before the average consumer owns that level of technology). It's a bit like saying that a 16Mp camera is much better than a 12Mp one. Is it really? For most people/uses it isn't. – Monomeeth Apr 11 '16 at 12:14

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