Serif and Sans Serif: A History and Study

What is a serif?

A serif is the small decorations found on the end of certain fonts. These small lines that tail the ends of letters make the font more distinctive. Serifs originate from stonemasons who would carve letters into rock.

There are four categories of serif typefaces:

Old style: These were initially created between the late 15th and mid-18th centuries, it is based on hand lettering of scribes. This style has very little contrast in stroke weight, where hairlines tend to be in the bulkier style. Usually, these earlier style fonts have angles, and diagonal stress, as shown in the example below. Popular examples: Centaur, Berkeley Oldstyle, and Garamond

Transitional: Slightly more modern, a blend of ‘Old Style’ and ‘Modern’. Generally the most common serif used, with slightly more contrast in stroke weight than old style. Popular examples: Baskerville, Americana, and Times New Roman

Modern: “Classier” and more, well, modern looking. Vertical stress, minimal brackets, and the most contrast in stroke weight defines this serif type. Popular examples: Bodoni, Didot, and Walbaum.

Slab Serif: Little to no contrast on stroke weights, and little to no bracketing. Popular examples: Rockwell, Soho, and American Typewriter.

What is sans serif?

The first sans-serifs were created in the late 18th century. ‘Sans’ literally means without. So, a sans serif is less decorative, with precise ends, and no serifs

There are four categories of sans serif typefaces:

Grotesque: Very similar to serif style, minus the serif decoration. Slight square quality to the design, with very consistent line weight. Popular examples: News Gothic, Venus, Franklin Gothic.

Neo-grotesque: Almost unidentifiable amount of line weight change throughout. I would say the most ‘neutral’ group of serifs, as is strays away from extra decorations. Popular examples: Helvetica, Arial, and Univers.

Humanist: With a sort of Futurist modern feel, this style is more calligraphic than other sans-serif typefaces Popular examples: Gill Sans, Tahoma, and Optima.

Geometric: Where the letters are literally based on geometric shapes.

When to use which

serif

Serifs have been long established, which may be why it gives off such a feeling of establishment, and trust. Text in this type face typically says it’s a serious conversation. It’s traditional and conservative. While they have many applications when it comes to logos, you’ll notice they are more popular with law practices, editorials, and authenticated businesses. Notice these well known companies use of serif logos – do they say reputable and validated?

sans serif

The use of sans serif fonts have increased significantly in the past few decades. I believe it has to do with it’s ‘modern’ appeal, and it’s approachable stance in the commercial world. Sans serifs give off a feeling of clean and casual, while feeling friendly and youthful too. A lot of companies have been trying out san serif logos, but them seem most popular with start-up companies, tech companies, and ‘cutting edge’ businesses. Below are a couple companies who prefer the smooth look of a sans serif, and I think it screams attainability.

a few pro typography tips
  • You should have no more than 2 typefaces for a design. Too many types can make a design feel detached and uncoordinated. Having a set combination will make designs more cohesive. It is important to note, that not all serifs and sans serif work together, if you’d like to see more on combining font styles, see this blog.
  • One Serif and one sans serif seems to be the best combination of typefaces, visually speaking, since it can create a slight contrast. It’s important that the two you choose are still cohesive in some way – if your serif doesn’t play well with yours sans, the design is doomed. You’ll notice many typefaces now make versions of both a serif and a sans version, which is a great option for easily picking a cohesive combination. For example, Lucida Bright and Lucida Sans.
  •  Don’t choose a Serif / Serif font combination, or a Sans-Serif / Sans-Serif combination, because it can look a little bland and undifferentiated.

Ultimately, the typeface you choose will be dependent on your brand. Every typeface has a mood, and some moods fit a brand, and some moods don’t. If you are trying to decide on your logo’s font, or trying to choose a combination for consistent use, than my final advice is to research. Research typography, ones you like, ones other companies like yours use, and find what really fits you.

 

What do you think about serifs and sans serifs? Join the conversation by dropping a comment below!