Otherwise known as Grotesques, Egyptians, Antiques, Dorics or Gothics, sans-serif typefaces are those where the letters do not feature the small finishing lines (serifs) at the end of each stroke. This article gives an overview of how sans-serifs have developed and how they can be successfully used.
A very quick history lesson
Although sans-serif letterforms have been used since ancient times, the 18th Century saw the first sans-serif foundry types by Thomas Dempster and later, Caslon. But it wasn’t until the early 19th Century that sans-serifs started to appear in print. Indeed, when the first examples appeared, they seemed so controversial that they were known as ‘grotesques’ and were rarely used except for in advertising, until the Bauhaus movements of the 1920s.
A particularly influential example of this era, Futura, appeared in Germany in 1928, and with its lack of embellishment and focus on the geometric, was viewed as something quite shocking and radical. Later, key sans-serifs included the transitional and subsequently rather overused Helvetica (1957), which was designed to be strong, clear and neutral, and the more Humanist, friendly-looking Frutiger of 1976. In more recent years, there have been a huge range of sans-serif variations, from very heavy to ultra-thin, and from extra-condensed to extremely extended.
There are four main categories of san-serif typefaces:
Grotesque fonts are the earliest type of sans-serifs and include Akzidenz Grotesk and Franklin Gothic. They are square, linear fonts with small differences in stroke weight and the ends of the curved strokes are usually horizontal and the x-heights large. Although they can be used in body text, they are often less effective for this purpose than Humanist sans-serifs.
Neo-grotesque (or Transitional or Realist)
These upright forms are the most common sans-serifs, forming a bridge between Grotesques and Humanists, and include examples such as Helvetica, Arial and Univers. They have very little contrast in stroke thickness and the ends of the curved strokes are often slanted.
The most calligraphic type of sans-serif, Humanist forms are more commonly used in small and body text since they are quick and easy to read and lead the eye onwards. They typically have greater variation in stroke width and the lower-case a and g are often two-storey. Examples include Calibri, Gill Sans, Frutiger, Trebchet and Tahoma.
These modern-looking typefaces are built around geometric shapes such as perfect circles, squares and triangles and have a very striking appearance. They are not often used for body copy, due to their sometimes cold and stark nature, but can be highly effective and eye-catching in headings and other large text. Examples include Futura, Century Gothic and Europa.
Since serif typefaces have traditionally been thought to help guide the eye along the lines in large blocks of text, sans-serif fonts have tended to be used more often for titles and headlines, but have now gained acceptance for use in website body copywriting too, particularly in Europe. This is perhaps due to the common usage of sans-serifs for text on computer and tablet screens, where serifs can fail to display correctly on lower-resolution screens and in smaller font sizes.
Although many sans-serif typefaces do not features true italics (they often have oblique variations instead), they do usually have a range of weights and work well in light and extra light as well as semibold, bold and black. This natural affinity should be taken into account when choosing typefaces for particular purposes; serif fonts work well with italic variations, but sans-serifs work better when contrasting weights are required.
In our next blog post, we will take a look at the varied and characterful family of script fonts and how they can be most effectively put to use.