Serif or Sans Serif?

By Danielle Stone

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Graphic design

A font is simply a set of characters that are styled using typefaces. The difference between a font and a typeface is often confused, but essentially a font is what describes a set of characters together and a typeface is the family of coordinating designs and weights that are used. For example, if the typeface used in a document is Arial, the font that is used will be Arial Regular, Arial Bold or Arial Italic.

When choosing how you will style your font there are two main categories, which can be used: serif and sans serif. Each of these has a number of different uses and purposes, but their biggest difference can easily be explained:

What is a serif?

Serifs are the small apertures, which extend from the end of a character. The function of these lines is to facilitate the reader in digesting large amounts of content on a page. In it's simplest form, serifs act as lines that help your eye move from one letter to another. In a sense, serifs are reminiscent of handwriting, which help our brains process the words faster.

A serif can come in a number of different forms, from the small delicate flick to more elegant flourishes used for a more decorative purpose. However, serifs that are used in the body of the text are often of the small variety such as in books and magazines.

How are sans serif typefaces different?

If there are no small apertures present then the font must use a sans serif typeface. The best way to remember the difference between a serif and a sans serif typeface is through the translation of the French 'sans' meaning 'without'.

Traditionally sans serif typeface were developed for use in headings and titles, as they typically appear more simplified and bold than a serif typeface. However, in modern typography the use of sans serif typefaces are more varied.

Classifications of serif typefaces:

Generally, serif typefaces can be separated into the different groups. These are determined by a number of different characteristics of the typeface including the contrast between the stroke weight contained within each letter. The four main classifications are as follows:

  • Transitional - These are the most widely used typefaces and include Times New Roman, Baskerville and Cambria.
  • Old style - Seen to be traditional and serious. Examples of these include Sabon, Garamond and Bembo.
  • Modern - Decorative with unusual flourishes. These are rarely used as body copy text since the letterforms are too intricate . Examples of these include Bodoni, Archer and Didot.
  • Slab Serif - Generally more bold and friendly. Examples include Serifa, Clarendon and Courier.

Classifications of sans serif typefaces:

Sans serif typefaces can be categories into the following four groups:

  • Grotesque - Examples include Akzidenz Grotesque and Franklin Gothic.
  • Transitional - The most common sans serif typefaces. These include Arial, Helvetica and Univers.
  • Geometric - Examples include Futura, Avant Garde and Gotham.
  • Humanist - These include Calibri, Myriad and Verdana.

Which typeface is right for you?

There are a number of different factors that you should consider before making your decision:

  • What context will the typeface be used in?
  • What message will the text be conveying?

What context will the typeface be used in?

By making a comparison between the two mediums; paper and computer screen, it is often preferred to read documents on paper. This is simply due to the resolution in which text is displayed. Text displayed on screen is made up of pixels, making the display of text at small sizes very limited. Paper on the other hand has text that is created by lots of smaller compact dots, creating a higher resolution. The higher the resolution the easier the text is to read.

Studies have shown that the preferred option for a typeface on screen is a sans serif typeface. Typically sans serif typefaces are simple and generally have a more open face (the space in the centre of a letter eg. the empty space contained within the centre of the letter 'o' or 'e'). As such, they show on screen at a higher resolution than a serif typeface - the higher the resolution, the better the legibility. This results in most websites displaying the majority of text in sans serif and titles in serif typefaces, which is the complete opposite to type that is printed.

Traditionally, serif typefaces are used for the bulk of text on printed documents. The evolution in printing techniques has resulted in better quality and higher resolution printing, creating a narrow gap between which is most legible on paper.

What message will the text be conveying?

Typefaces are important for setting the tone of their message. If we consider book covers, for instance, it is highly unlikely that you will see a children's book cover detailed in a serif typeface. Serif typefaces are seen as formal and serious which doesn't reflect a more fun and playful subject matter that a children's book is likely to reflect.

This is of course, a generalization of serif typefaces, as there are many different classifications of serifs and sans serifs. For example, one classification of serif typefaces are slab serifs. Compared to your typical old style serif, slab serifs are really bold with a much wider serif than the traditional serif, this boldness implies a sense of friendliness, and in this instance you could see a slab serif being used on a children's book cover.

What does all this mean?

To conclude, the best typefaces to use are the ones that help the legibility of the text. If the message isn't lost whilst reading the typeface it is doing the job it was designed for. Typefaces should be used to serve the text, making it easy it read and not overpowering the text or message.

As a general rule, there are no good or bad typefaces. Depending on the context and the message there are only appropriate and inappropriate typefaces. A combination of two complimenting typefaces is often a preferred option as this is traditionally how the two different styles of font, serif and sans serif were introduced.

A little thought into what typeface you use will make all the difference in helping people read and understand what your writing about.

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