In typography and lettering, a sans-serif, sans serif, gothic, or simply sans letterform is one that does not have extending features called "serifs" at the end of strokes. Sans-serif fonts tend to have less stroke width variation than serif fonts. They are often used to convey simplicity and modernity or minimalism.
Sans-serif fonts have become the most prevalent for display of text on computer screens. On lower-resolution digital displays, fine details like serifs may disappear or appear too large. The term comes from the French word sans, meaning "without" and "serif" of uncertain origin, possibly from the Dutch word schreef meaning "line" or pen-stroke. In printed media, they are more commonly used for display use and less for body text.
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 News Gothic, Highway Gothic, Franklin Gothic or Trade Gothic.
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.
This group features most of the early (19th century to early 20th) sans-serif designs. Influenced by Didone serif fonts of the period and sign painting traditions, these were often quite solid, bold designs suitable for headlines and advertisements. The early sans-serif typefaces often did not feature a lower case or italics, since they were not needed for such uses. They were sometimes released by width, with a range of widths from extended to normal to condensed, with each style different, meaning to modern eyes they can look quite irregular and eccentric. Grotesque fonts have limited variation of stroke width (often none perceptible in capitals). The terminals of curves are usually horizontal, and many have a spurred "G" and an "R" with a curled leg. Capitals tend to be of relatively uniform width. Cap height and ascender height are generally the same to create a more regular effect in texts such as titles with many capital letters, and descenders are often short for tighter line spacing. Most avoid having a true italic in favor of a more restrained oblique or sloped design, although at least some sans-serif true italics were offered.
Examples of grotesque fonts include Akzidenz Grotesk, Venus, News Gothic, Franklin Gothic and Monotype Grotesque. Akzidenz Grotesk Old Face, Knockout, Grotesque No. 9 and Monotype Grotesque are examples of digital fonts that retain more of the eccentricities of some of the early sans-serif types.
According to Monotype, the term "grotesque" originates from Italian: grottesco, meaning "belonging to the cave" due to their simple geometric appearance. The term arose because of adverse comparisons that were drawn with the more ornate Modern Serif and Roman typefaces that were the norm at the time.
As the name implies, these modern designs consist of a direct evolution of grotesque types. They are relatively straightforward in appearance with limited width variation. Unlike earlier grotesque designs, many were issued in extremely large and versatile families from the time of release, making them easier to use for body text. Similar to grotesque typefaces, neo-grotesques often feature capitals of uniform width and a quite 'folded-up' design, in which strokes (for example on the 'c') are curved all the way round to end on a perfect horizontal or vertical. Helvetica is an example of this. Others such as Univers are less regular.
Neo-grotesque type 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 (1898) 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.[b]
As their name suggests, Geometric sans-serif typefaces are based on geometric shapes, like near-perfect circles and squares. Common features are a nearly-exactly circular capital "O", uppercase "N" vertices are sharp and pointed and a "single-story" lowercase letter "a". The 'M' is often splayed and the capitals of varying width, following the classical model.
The geometric sans originated in Germany in the 1920s. 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.
Geometric sans-serif fonts were popular from the 1920s and 1930s due to their clean, modern design, and many new geometric designs and revivals have been created since.[c] Notable geometric types of the period include Kabel, Semplicità, Bernhard Gothic, Nobel and Metro; more recent designs in the style include ITC Avant Garde, Brandon Grotesque, Gotham, Avenir, Product Sans and Century Gothic. Many geometric sans-serif alphabets of the period, such as those created by the Bauhaus art school (1919-1933) and modernist poster artists, were hand-lettered and not cut into metal type at the time.
A separate inspiration for many types described "geometric" in design has been the simplified shapes of letters engraved or stenciled on metal and plastic in industrial use, which often follow a simplified structure and are sometimes known as "rectilinear" for their use of straight vertical and horizontal lines. Designs which have been called geometric in principles but not descended from the Futura/Erbar/Kabel tradition include Bank Gothic, DIN 1451, Eurostile and Handel Gothic, along with many of the fonts designed by Ray Larabie.
Humanist sans-serif typefaces take inspiration from traditional letterforms, such as Roman square capitals, traditional serif fonts and calligraphy. Many have true italics rather than an oblique, ligatures and even swashes in italic. One of the earliest humanist designs was Edward Johnston's Johnston typeface from 1916, and, a decade later, Gill Sans (Eric Gill, 1928). Edward Johnston, a calligrapher by profession, was inspired by classic letter forms, especially the capital letters on the Column of Trajan.
Humanist designs vary more than gothic or geometric designs. Some humanist designs have stroke modulation (strokes that clearly vary in width along their line) or alternating thick and thin strokes. These include most popularly Hermann Zapf's Optima (1958), a typeface expressly designed to be suitable for both display and body text. Some humanist designs may be more geometric, as in Gill Sans and Johnston (especially their capitals), which like Roman capitals are often based on perfect squares, half-squares and circles, with considerable variation in width. These somewhat architectural designs may feel too stiff for body text. Others such as Syntax, Goudy Sans and Sassoon Sans more resemble handwriting, serif fonts or calligraphy.
Frutiger, from 1976, has been particularly influential in the development of the modern humanist sans genre, especially designs intended to be particularly legible above all other design considerations. The category expanded greatly during the 1980s and 1990s, partly as a reaction against the overwhelming popularity of Helvetica and Univers and also due to the need for legible fonts on low-resolution computer displays. Designs from this period intended for print use include FF Meta, Myriad, Thesis, Charlotte Sans, Bliss, Skia and Scala Sans, while designs created for computer use include Microsoft's Tahoma, Trebuchet, Verdana, Calibri and Corbel, as well as Lucida Grande, Fira Sans and Droid Sans. Humanist sans-serif designs can (if appropriately proportioned and spaced) be particularly suitable for use on screen or at distance, since their designs can be given wide apertures or separation between strokes, which is not a conventional feature on grotesque and neo-grotesque designs.
Due to the diversity of sans-serif typefaces, many do not fit neatly into the above categories. For example, Neuzeit S has both neo-grotesque and geometric influences, as does Hermann Zapf's URW Grotesk. Whitney blends humanist and grotesque influences, while Klavika is a geometric design not based on the circle. Sans-serif fonts intended for signage, such as Transport and Highway Gothic used on road signs, may have unusual features to enhance legibility and differentiate characters, such as a lower-case "L" with a curl or "i" with serif under the dot.
A particular subgenre of sans-serifs is those such as Rothbury, Britannic, Radiant, and National Trust with obvious variation in stroke width. These have been called 'modulated' or 'stressed' sans-serifs. They are nowadays often placed within the humanist genre, although they predate Johnston which started the modern humanist genre. These may take inspiration from sources outside printing such as brush lettering or calligraphy.
Letters without serifs have been common in writing across history, for example in casual, non-monumental epigraphy of the classical period. However, Roman square capitals, the inspiration for much Latin-alphabet lettering throughout history, had prominent serifs. While simple sans-serif letters have always been common in "uncultured" writing and sometimes even in epigraphy, such as basic handwriting, most artistically created letters in the Latin alphabet, both sculpted and printed, since the Middle Ages have been inspired by fine calligraphy, blackletter writing and Roman square capitals. As a result, printing done in the Latin alphabet for the first three hundred and fifty years of printing was "serif" in style, whether in blackletter, roman type, italic or occasionally script.
The earliest printing typefaces which omitted serifs were not intended to render contemporary texts, but to represent inscriptions in Ancient Greek and Etruscan. Thus, Thomas Dempster's De Etruria regali libri VII (1723), used special types intended for the representation of Etruscan epigraphy, and in c. 1745, the Caslon foundry made Etruscan types for pamphlets written by Etruscan scholar John Swinton. Another niche used of a printed sans-serif letterform from in 1786 onwards was a rounded sans-serif script font developed by Valentin Haüy for the use of the blind to read with their fingers.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century neoclassicism led to architects increasingly incorporating ancient Greek and Roman designs in contemporary structures. Historian James Mosley, the leading expert on early revival of sans-serif letters, has found that architect John Soane commonly used sans-serif letters on his drawings and architectural designs. Soane's inspiration was apparently the inscriptions dedicating the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, with minimal serifs. These were then copied by other artists, and in London sans-serif capitals became popular for advertising, apparently because of the "astonishing" effect the unusual style had on the public. The lettering style apparently became referred to as "old Roman" or "Egyptian" characters, referencing the classical past and a contemporary interest in Ancient Egypt and its blocky, geometric architecture.
Mosley writes that "in 1805 Egyptian letters were happening in the streets of London, being plastered over shops and on walls by signwriters, and they were astonishing the public, who had never seen letters like them and were not sure they wanted to". A depiction of the style (as an engraving, rather than printed from type) was shown in the European Magazine of 1805, described as "old Roman" characters. However, the style did not become used in printing for some more years.[e] (Early sans-serif signage was not printed from type but hand-painted or carved, since at the time it was not possible to print in large sizes. This makes tracing the descent of sans-serif styles hard, since a trend can arrive in the dated, printed record from a signpainting tradition which has left less of a record or at least no dates.)
The inappropriateness of the name was not lost on the poet Robert Southey, in his satirical Letters from England written in the character of a Spanish aristocrat. It commented: "The very shopboards must be... painted in Egyptian letters, which, as the Egyptians had no letters, you will doubtless conceive must be curious. They are simply the common characters, deprived of all beauty and all proportion by having all the strokes of equal thickness, so that those which should be thin look as if they had the elephantiasis." Similarly, the painter Joseph Farington wrote in his diary on September 13, 1805 of seeing a memorial[f] engraved "in what is called Egyptian Characters".
Around 1816, William Caslon IV produced the first sans-serif printing type in England for the Latin alphabet, a capitals-only face under the title 'Two Lines English Egyptian', where 'Two Lines English' referred to the font's body size, which equals to about 28 points. Although it is known from its appearances in the firm's specimen books, no uses of it from the period have been found; Mosley speculates that it may have been commissioned by a specific client.[g]
A second hiatus in interest in sans-serif appears to have lasted for about twelve years, until Vincent Figgins' foundry of London issued a new sans-serif in 1828. Thereafter sans-serif capitals rapidly began to be issued from London typefounders. Much imitated was the Thorowgood "grotesque" face of the early 1830s. This was arrestingly bold and highly condensed, quite unlike the classical proportions of Caslon's design, but very suitable for poster typography and similar in aesthetic effect to the (generally wider) slab serif and "fat faces" of the period. It also added a lower-case. Similar condensed sans-serif typefaces, often display capitals, became very successful. Sans-serif printing types began to appear thereafter in France and Germany.
A few theories about early sans-serifs now known to be incorrect may be mentioned here. One is that sans-serifs are based on either "fat face typefaces" or slab-serifs with the serifs removed. It is now known that the inspiration was more classical antiquity, and sans-serifs appeared before the first dated appearance of slab-serif letterforms in 1810. The Schelter & Giesecke foundry also claimed during the 1920s to have been offering a sans-serif with lower-case by 1825. Wolfgang Homola dated it in 2004 to 1882 based on a study of Schelter & Giesecke specimens; Mosley describes this as "thoroughly discredited"; even in 1986 Walter Tracy described the claimed dates as "on stylistic grounds...about forty years too early".
Sans-serif lettering and fonts were popular due to their clarity and legibility at distance in advertising and display use, when printed very large or small. Because sans-serif type was often used for headings and commercial printing, many early sans-serif designs did not feature lower-case letters. Simple sans-serif capitals, without use of lower-case, became very common in uses such as tombstones of the Victorian period in Britain. The term "grotesque" became commonly used to describe sans-serifs. The term "grotesque" comes from the Italian word for cave, and was often used to describe Roman decorative styles found by excavation, but had long become applied in the modern sense for objects that appeared "malformed or monstrous."
The first use of sans serif as a running text has been proposed 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), by Peter Behrens, in 1900.
Specimen by William Caslon IV showing his Two Lines English Egyptian sans-serif, the first general-purpose "sans-serif" printing type ever. Cut in only one size, it was apparently not promoted with any prominence.
The largest type in this image is the second sans-serif type known, published by Figgins in 1828.
Sample image of condensed sans-serifs from the Figgins foundry of London in an 1845 specimen-book. Much less influenced by classical models than the earliest sans-serif lettering, these faces became extremely popular for commercial use.
Simple sans-serif capitals on a late nineteenth-century memorial, London
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sans-serif types were viewed with suspicion by many printers, especially those of fine book printing, as being fit only for advertisements (if that), and to this day most books remain printed in serif fonts as body text. This impression would not have been helped by the standard of common sans-serif types of the period, many of which now seem somewhat lumpy and eccentrically-shaped. In 1922, master printer Daniel Berkeley Updike described sans-serif fonts as having "no place in any artistically respectable composing-room." By 1937 he stated that he saw no need to change this opinion in general, though he felt that Gill Sans and Futura were the best choices if sans-serifs had to be used.
Through the early twentieth century, an increase in popularity of sans-serif fonts took place as more artistic sans-serif designs were released. While he disliked sans-serif fonts in general, the American printer J.L. Frazier wrote of Copperplate Gothic in 1925 that "a certain dignity of effect accompanies...due to the absence of anything in the way of frills," making it a popular choice for the stationery of professionals such as lawyers and doctors. As Updike's comments suggest, the new, more constructed humanist and geometric sans-serif designs were viewed as increasingly respectable, and were shrewdly marketed in Europe and America as embodying classic proportions (with influences of Roman capitals) while presenting a spare, modern image. Futura in particular was extensively marketed by Bauer and its American distribution arm by brochure as capturing the spirit of modernity, using the German slogan "die Schrift unserer Zeit" ("the typeface of our time") and in English "the typeface of today and tomorrow"; many typefaces were released under its influence as direct clones, or at least offered with alternate characters allowing them to imitate it if desired.
In the post-war period, an increase of interest took place in "grotesque" sans-serifs. Writing in The Typography of Press Advertisement (1956), printer Kenneth Day commented that Stephenson Blake's eccentric Grotesque series had returned to popularity for having "a personality sometimes lacking in the condensed forms of the contemporary sans cuttings of the last thirty years." Leading type designer Adrian Frutiger wrote in 1961 on designing a new face, Univers, on the nineteenth-century model: "Some of these old sans serifs have had a real renaissance within the last twenty years, once the reaction of the 'New Objectivity' had been overcome. A purely geometrical form of type is unsustainable." Of this period in Britain, Mosley has commented that in 1960 "orders unexpectedly revived" for Monotype's eccentric Monotype Grotesque design: "[it] represents, even more evocatively than Univers, the fresh revolutionary breeze that began to blow through typography in the early sixties" and "its rather clumsy design seems to have been one of the chief attractions to iconoclastic designers tired of the...prettiness of Gill Sans".
By the 1960s, neo-grotesque fonts such as Univers and Helvetica had become popular through reviving the nineteenth-century grotesques while offering a more unified range of styles than on previous designs, allowing a wider range of text to be set artistically through setting headings and body text in a single family. The style of design using asymmetric layouts, Helvetica and a grid layout extensively has been called the Swiss or International Typographic Style.
1952 Jersey holiday events brochure, using the popular Gill Sans-led British style of the period.
Neo-grotesque type, 1972, Switzerland: Helvetica or a close copy. Irregular baseline may be due to using transfers.
Governmental poster using Univers, 1980
Distorted sans-serif in the "grunge typography" style, Ankara 2002.
Imago [is] a relatively obscure neo-grotesk released by Berthold in the early '80s.
[T]he Figgins 'Sans-serif' types (so called) are well worth looking at. In fact it might be said to be that with these types the Figgins typefoundry brought the design into typography, since the original Caslon Egyptian appeared only briefly in a specimen and has never been seen in commercial use. One size of the Figgins Sans-serif appears in a specimen dated 1828 (the unique known copy is in the University Library, Amsterdam)....It is a self-confident design, which in the larger sizes abandons the monoline structure of the Caslon letter for a thick-thin modulation which would remain a standard model through the 19th century, and can still be seen in the ATF Franklin Gothic. Note that there is no lower-case. That would come, after 1830, with the innovative condensed 'Grotesque' of the Thorowgood foundry, which provided a model for type that would get large sizes into the lines of posters. It gave an alternative name to the design, and both the new features - the condensed proportions and the addition of lower-case - broke the link with Roman inscriptional capitals...But the antiquarian associations of the design were still there, at least in the smaller sizes, as the specimen of the Pearl size (four and three quarters points) of Figgins's type shows. It uses the text of the Latin inscription prepared for the rebuilt London Bridge, which was opened on 1 August 1831.
Figgins 1828 [is] one of two known copies, but with the first known appearance of the world's second sans-serif type, not in the other copy