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Subject: Helvetica, Droid fonts, Lexia Readable, Lithos, Nimbus Sans
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Sans-serif font
Serif font
Serif font
(serifs in red)

In typography, a sans-serif, sans serif, gothic, san serif or simply sans typeface is one that does not have the small projecting features called "serifs" at the end of strokes.[1] The term comes from the French word sans, meaning "without". Sans-serif fonts tend to have less line width variation than serif fonts.

In print, sans-serif fonts are often used for headlines rather than for body text.[2] The conventional wisdom holds that serifs help guide the eye along the lines in large blocks of text. Sans-serifs, however, have acquired considerable acceptance for body text in Europe.

Sans-serif fonts have become the most prevalent for display of text on computer screens. This is partly because interlaced screens have shown twittering on the fine details of the horizontal serifs. Additionally, on lower-resolution digital displays, fine details like serifs may disappear or appear too large.

Before the term "sans-serif" became common in English typography, a number of other terms had been used. One of these outmoded terms for sans serif was gothic, which is still used in East Asian typography and sometimes seen in font names like Century Gothic or Trade Gothic.

Sans-serif fonts are sometimes, especially in older documents, used as a device for emphasis, due to their typically blacker type color.


Ancient usages

Sans-serif forms can be found in Latin, Etruscan, and Greek inscriptions, for as early as 5th century BC.[3] The sans serif forms had been used on stoichedon Greek inscriptions.

Early Non-Latin types

The first known usage of Etruscan sans-serif foundry types was from Thomas Dempster's De Etruria regali libri VII (1723). Later at about 1745, Caslon foundry made the first sans-serif types for Etruscan languages, which was used by University Press, Oxford, for pamphlets written by Etruscan scholar John Swinton.

Revival of Latin characters

According to James Mosley's Typographica journal titled The Nymph and the Grot: the revival of the sanserif letter, the sans-serif letters had appeared as early as 1748, as an inscription of Nymph in the Grotto in Stourhead.[3] However, it was classified as an experiment rather than a sign of wide-scale adoption.[4]

In late 18th century, Neoclassicism led to architects to increasingly incorporating ancient Greek and Roman designs in contemporary structures. Among the architects, John Soane was noted for using sans-serif letters on his drawings and architectural designs, which were eventually adopted by other designers, such as Thomas Banks and John Flaxman.

Sans-serif letters began to appear in printed media as early as 1805, in European Magazine. However, early-19th-century commercial sign writers and engravers had modified the sans-serif styles of neoclassical designers to include the uneven stroke weights found in serif Roman fonts, producing sans-serif letters.[3]

In 1816, the Ordnance Survey began to use 'Egyptian' type, which was printed using copper plate engraving of monoline sans-serif capital letters, to name ancient Roman sites.[3]

Incorporation by typefounders

The January 13, 1898 edition of L'Aurore (the "J'accuse" issue): An early example of sans-serif in the media. Select headlines are in a sans-serif typeface.

In 1786 a rounded sans-serif font that was developed by Valentin Haüy first appeared in the book titled "Essai sur l'éducation des aveugles" (An Essay on the Education of the Blind).[5] The purpose of this font was to be invisible and address accessibility. It was designed to emboss paper and allow the blind to read with their fingers.[6] The design was eventually known as Haüy type.[7]

In 1816, William Caslon IV produced the first sans-serif printing type in England for Latin characters under the title 'Two Lines English Egyptian', where 'Two Lines English' referred to the font's body size, which equals to about 28 points. Originally cut in 1812.[8]

The first Grotesque typeface complete with lower-case letters was probably cast by the Schelter & Giesecke Foundry as early as 1825.[9]

The term sans-serif was first employed in 1832 by Vincent Figgins.[10]

The first use of sans serif as a running text is believed to be the short booklet Feste des Lebens und der Kunst: eine Betrachtung des Theaters als höchsten Kultursymbols (Celebration of Life and Art: A Consideration of the Theater as the Highest Symbol of a Culture),[11] by Peter Behrens, in 1900.[12]

In 2014, Sweden commissioned Sweden Sans as a national typeface.[13]

Other names for sans-serif

Early appellatives

  • Egyptian: The term was first used by Joseph Farington after seeing the sans serif inscription on John Flaxman's memorial to Isaac Hawkins Brown in 1805,[3] though today the term is commonly used to refer to slab serif, not sans serif.
  • Antique: In about 1817, the Figgins foundry in London made a type with square or slab-serifs which it called 'Antique', and that name was adopted by most of the British and US typefounders. An exception was the typefounder Thorne, who confused things by marketing his Antique under the name 'Egyptian'. In France it became Egyptienne, and to worsen the confusion, the French called sans-serif type 'Antique'.[4] Some fonts, such as Antique Olive, still carry the name.
  • Grotesque: It was originally coined by William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry in 1832.[9] The name came from the Italian word 'grottesco', meaning 'belonging to the cave'. In Germany, the name became Grotesk. German typefounders adopted the term from the nomenclature of Fann Street Foundry, which took on the meaning of cave (or grotto) art.[14] Nevertheless, some explained the term was derived from the surprised response from the typographers.
  • Doric: It was the term first used by H. W. Caslon Foundry in Chiswell Street in 1870 to describe various sans-serif fonts at a time the generic name 'sans-serif' was commonly accepted. Eventually the foundry used Sans-serif in 1906. At that time, Doric referred to a certain kind of stressed sans-serif types.
  • Gothic: Not to be confused with blackletter typeface, the term was used mainly by American type founders. Perhaps the first use of the term was due to the Boston Type and Stereotype Foundry, which in 1837 published a set of non-serifed typefaces under that name. It is believed that those were the first sans serif designs to be introduced in America.[15] The term probably derived from the architectural definition, which is neither Greek or Roman,[16] and from the extended adjective term of "Germany", which was the place where sans-serif typefaces became popular in 19th to 20th century.[17] Early adopters for the term includes Miller & Richard (1863), J. & R. M. Wood (1865), Lothian, Conner, Bruce McKellar. Although the usage is now rare in the English-speaking world, the term is commonly used in Japan and South Korea; in China they are known by the term heiti (Chinese: 黑體), literally meaning "black type", which is probably derived from the mistranslation of Gothic as blackletter typeface, even though actual blackletter fonts have serifs.

Recent appellatives

  • Lineale, or linear: The term was defined by typographic historian Maximilien Vox in the VOX-ATypI classification to describe sans-serif types. Later, in British Standards Classification of Typefaces (BS 2961:1967), lineale replaced sans-serif as classification name.
  • Simplices: In Jean Alessandrini's désignations préliminaries (preliminary designations), simplices (plain typefaces) is used to describe sans-serif on the basis that the name 'lineal' refers to lines, whereas, in reality, all typefaces are made of lines, including those that are not lineals.[18]
  • Swiss: It is used as a synonym to sans-serif, as opposed to roman (serif). The OpenDocument format (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) and Rich Text Format can use it to specify the sans-serif generic font family name for a font used in a document.[19][20][21]


For the purposes of type classification, sans-serif designs are usually divided into three or four major groups, the fourth being the result of splitting the grotesque category into grotesque and neo-grotesque.[22][23]


The Franklin Gothic typeface (Grotesque)

This group features the early (19th century to early 20th) sans-serif designs.

Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, uses the term realist to describe a group of typefaces that closely matches the grotesque category for what concerns sans serifs: it should be noted in fact that Bringhurst's categorization is historic and doesn't separate serifs and sans serifs. The realist class does indeed include serifs, particularly slabs, that were developed during the same period and in the same spirit.[24]

This denomination, derived from the aesthetic movement of the 19th century, can be confused with the transitional/realist category of the Vox-ATypI classification, where it is used to describe mid-18th century typefaces positioned between the old style designs of William Caslon and the newer, modern styles of Giambattista Bodoni and Firmin Didot, with realist intended in the acceptation of royal, regal. Nonetheless some scholars, noting similarities (the vertical axis, the uniform character) and in order to mirror the three-pronged division of serifs (old, transitional, modern), use the appellatives transitional/realist (or anonymous, given the plain appearance) to categorize together grotesque and neo-grotesque typefaces as opposed to humanist and geometric.[25]

Examples include: Akzidenz Grotesk, Franklin Gothic, Monotype Grotesque.


The Helvetica typeface (Neo-grotesque)

As the name implies, these modern designs consist of a direct evolution of grotesque types. They are relatively straight in appearance and have less line width variation than humanist sans-serif typefaces.

The story of neo-grotesque types began in the 1950s with the emergence of the International Typographic Style, or Swiss style. Its members looked at the clear lines of Akzidenz Grotesk (1896) as an inspiration to create rational, almost neutral typefaces. In 1957 the release of Helvetica, Univers, and Folio, the first typefaces categorized as neo-grotesque, had a strong impact internationally: Helvetica came to be the most used typeface for the following decades.[26]

Other examples include: Highway Gothic, Arial, Bell Centennial, MS Sans Serif.


The Tahoma typeface (Humanist)

These are the most calligraphic of the sans-serif typefaces, with some variation in line width and more legibility than other sans-serif fonts. Many take extensive inspiration from serif fonts, with true italic designs, ligatures and even swashes in italic.

The origin of the humanist designs can't be pinpointed to a particular movement, but to the specific needs of the Frank Pick-led London Underground, which resulted in the creation of the Johnston typeface (Edward Johnston, 1916), and, a decade later, to Monotype's Stanley Morison, who commissioned the development of a complete typographic family (Gill Sans, 1928) after seeing the potential in the sans-serif lettering of Johnston's disciple, Eric Gill.[27]

Edward Johnston, a calligrapher by profession, was inspired by classic letter forms, with capitals based on roman inscriptions, but also sought clarity by using the simplest possible forms: the lowercase "o" is a perfect circle and constitutes the base for the bowls of other letters; also, while the stroke thickness is exactly 1/7th of the capital height, as per calligraphic tradition, it's completely uniform, without any compensation for optical distortions.[27]

While Johnston's typeface experienced limited popularity, since it wasn't available for general use, Gill's sans, an evolution of Johnston's sans, became one of the most popular typefaces in Britain, albeit enjoying little-to-no fame outside of it.[28]

During the following decades there were a number of experiments with thick and thin sans-serifs, among them Stellar (Robert Hunter Middleton, 1929) and Lydian (Warren Chappell, 1938), which culminated in Hermann Zapf's Optima (1958), a typeface expressly designed to be used both for display and running text.[29]

Other examples include: Antique Olive, Calibri, Lucida Grande, Segoe UI, Myriad, Frutiger, Trebuchet MS, Tahoma, Verdana.


The Futura typeface (Geometric)

As their name suggests, Geometric sans-serif typefaces are based on geometric shapes, like near-perfect circle and square. Note the optically circular letter "O" and the simple construction of the lowercase letter "a". Geometric sans-serif fonts have a very modern look and feel. Of these four categories, geometric fonts tend to be the least useful for body text.

The geometric sans is strongly associated with the Bauhaus art school (1919-1933). Two early efforts in designing geometric types were made by Herbert Bayer and Jakob Erbar, who worked respectively on Universal Typeface (unreleased at the time but revived digitally as Architype Bayer) and Erbar (circa 1925). In 1927 Futura, by Paul Renner, was released to great acclaim and popularity.[30]

Other examples include: Kabel, Nobel, ITC Avant Garde, Century Gothic, Gotham and Drogowskaz.

Sans-serif analogues in non-Latin scripts

The concept of a typeface without traditional flourishes spread from the Western European typographical tradition to other scripts in the late 19th century. Like their Latin counterparts, non-Latin linear faces are popular for on-screen text due to their legibility. Sans-serif analogues are in common use for Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. See also East Asian sans-serif typeface.

See also


  1. ^ "sans serif" in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 15th edn., 1992, Vol. 10, p. 421.
  2. ^ Serifs more used for headlines
  3. ^ a b c d e James Mosley, The Nymph and the Grot: the revival of the sanserif letter, London: Friends of the St Bride Printing Library, 1999
  4. ^ a b Mosley, James (January 6, 2007), The Nymph and the Grot, an update, archived from the original on June 10, 2014, retrieved June 10, 2014 
  5. ^ The First Book for Blind People
  6. ^ Does your font choice measure up?
  7. ^ How Braille Began
  8. ^ William Caslon IV's sans serif
  9. ^ a b Lawson 1990, p. 296.
  10. ^ Meggs 2011, p. 149.
  11. ^  
  12. ^ Meggs 2011, p. 242.
  13. ^ Hohenadel, Kristen (October 28, 2014). "Sweden Has Its Own Font. Should the U.S.?".  
  14. ^ Grotesk
  15. ^ Lawson 1990, p. 295.
  16. ^ OED Definition of Gothic
  17. ^ The Sans Serif Typefaces
  18. ^ Haralambous 2007, p. 411.
  19. ^ Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) Version 1.2, Part 1: Introduction and OpenDocument Schema, Committee Draft 04, 15 December 2009, retrieved 2010-05-01 
  20. ^ OpenDocument v1.1 specification (PDF), retrieved 2010-05-01 
  21. ^ Microsoft Corporation (June 1992), Microsoft Product Support Services Application Note (Text File) - GC0165: RICH-TEXT FORMAT (RTF) SPECIFICATION (TXT), retrieved 2010-03-13 
  22. ^ Childers; Griscti; Leben (January 2013). "25 Systems for Classifying Typography: A Study in Naming Frequency". The Parsons Journal for Information Mapping (The Parsons Institute for Information Mapping) V (1). Retrieved 23 May 2014. 
  23. ^ Baines, Phil; Haslam, Andrew (2005), Type and Typography, Laurence King Publishing, p. 51,  
    In British Standards Classification of Typefaces (BS 2961:1967), the following are defined:
    Grotesque: Lineale typefaces with 19th-century origins. There is some contrast in thickness of strokes. They have squareness of curve, and curling close-set jaws. The R usually has a curled leg and the G is spurred. The ends of the curved strokes are usually oblique. Examples include
    Stephenson Blake Grotesque No. 6, Condensed Sans No. 7, Monotype Headline Bold.
    Neo-grotesque: Lineale typefaces derived from the grotesque. They have less stroke contrast and are more regular in design. The jaws are more open than in the true grotesque and the g is often open-tailed. The ends of the curved strokes are usually horizontal. Examples include Edel/Wotan, Univers, Helvetica.
    Humanist: Lineale typefaces based on the proportions of inscriptional Roman capitals and Humanist or Garalde lower-case, rather than on early grotesques. They have some stroke contrast, with two-storey a and g. Examples include Optima, Gill Sans, Pascal.
    Geometric: Lineale typefaces constructed on simple geometric shapes, circle or rectangle. Usually monoline, and often with single-storey a. Examples include Futura, Erbar, Eurostile.
  24. ^ Bringhurst 2004, pp. 14,131-132.
  25. ^ Lupton, Ellen (2010), Thinking with Type (2nd ed.),  
  26. ^ Meggs 2011, pp. 376-377.
  27. ^ a b Tracy 1986, pp. 86-90.
  28. ^ Tracy 1986, p. 95.
  29. ^ Lawson 1990, pp. 326-330.
  30. ^ Meggs 2011, pp. 339-340.


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