In lettering and typography, sans serif (sometimes also referred to as gothic or simply sans) is a letterform that lacks the extending features at the end of strokes. These typefaces feature a wide variety of fonts; among them, Comic Sans might be one of the most recognizable fonts due to its extensive use in, well, comic books. This letterform was sometimes used as an emphasis tool in older documents due to their bolder and darker color.
But how did they come into existence in the first place? What sets them apart from serif letterform aside from the decorative extensions?
History and Etymology
The term ‘sans serif‘ itself came from the French word “sans”, meaning “without”, and “serif”, which is thought to be derived from Dutch “schreef”, representing “line” or pen-stroke. Other terms have been used to refer to this particular letterform before. One of them is gothic. However, east Asian typography is still using this term to refer to typefaces featuring even thickness and lack of decorations.
The Rise of the Extensionless Glyphs
In the context of modern printing and typography, the earliest printing typefaces that lacked decorative extensions were not meant for contemporary texts. Instead, it was created to represent Ancient Greek and Etruscan inscriptions. Thomas Dempster and John Swinton developed their own typefaces to represent Etruscan in their works in 1723 and c. 1745, respectively.
However, the popularity of sans serif as a contemporary letterform in printing began to rise during the next decade. William Caslon IV created the first recorded typeface in this letterform in 1816. The typeface, called Two Lines English Egyptian, was commissioned to Caslon by a specific client. Twelve years later, a London-based foundry Vincent Friggins’ issued a new sans serif typeface that features cruder but larger glyphs than its predecessors.
Entering the 20th century, new generations of artists, designers, and architects took the letterform to new heights. Challenging the established Art Nouveau aesthetics of that era, Bauhaus popularized the clean and straightforward look of sans serif and its high efficiency for reading. In 1925, Herbert Bayer’s Proposal of a Universal Type presented the idea of minimalistic letterforms, attempting to simplify and ultimately reform the orthography.
These movements challenged that era’s taste for sophistication and intricate decoration for a more simplified, universal form. However, it was not meant as a simple aesthetic revolution. Instead, it was more of an ideology reform, aiming to increase efficiency and practicality in printing industries.
One of the most influential typefaces that can be considered the embodiment of the movement might be Futura. Designed by Paul Renner and published by Bauer type foundry in 1927, the essential elements of the glyphs were drawn using circles, triangles, and squares with a compass and a ruler. The resulting typeface paved the way for countless other sans serif to today’s digital era.
Serifs & Sans Serifs: Key Differences
The main characteristic difference between the two letterforms is the presence of the extensions at the end of each stroke. However, their difference goes beyond the visual and design aspects. They represent different things and moods and possesses their own fanbase.
First off, the visuals. Aside from the extensions, their distinction lies in the thickness of the brushstroke as well. Sans serif fonts tend to have a more uniform stroke than their serifed counterpart. Also, during the early years of the digital era, the lower-resolution of computer screens made fine details like the serif appear distorted or gone altogether—the problem that was never encountered with grotesque-style typefaces.
Second, when they first came out, what each of them represents, sans serif typefaces represent the rising tide of the industrial era when everything that would hinder functionality, practicality, and efficiency would be omitted. Gone are the days of intricate and sophisticated aesthetics the serif typefaces represent.
Third, what both typefaces aim to express, elegant professionalism and classical antiquity are serif’s forte, while bold simplicity and clean minimalism are what sans-serif letterform thrived for.
However, those differences are not meant to demonize each other. Typographers and digital designers found ways to incorporate both typefaces in their projects. Serif fonts typically form the body text, while headlines or titles are usually written in sans serif when it comes to text-based media like this article. So, get creative!