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What is serif and sans serif?

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Updated 9/1/2020

Serif and sans serif are two common typefaces used for designing documents, web pages, books, marketing materials, and more. Serif typefaces are recognized by the tiny lines or “feet” that extend off of the letters, while sans serif typefaces do not have the lines extending off of the letters.

Why Do Typefaces Matter?

When you’re writing a marketing pamphlet or creating a poster, the typeface you choose may seem of little importance. But in reality, typefaces make a big impact in conveying your message and capturing the attention of your target audience. Choose the wrong typeface, and your project may not achieve its intended purpose. On the other hand, when you choose the right typeface, your message will be more effective and easier to read.

Typeface Categories

Understanding the connotation of each typeface category can help you choose the right one for your next project. But if you’re used to scrolling through your typeface options and selecting one at random, you may need a more extensive introduction.

There are essentially three different categories of typefaces: serif, sans serif, and script. We’ll dive into the differences between each typeface category below. But for now it’s important to keep in mind that since there are thousands upon thousands of typefaces available, being able to decide if you need a serif, sans serif, or script typeface ahead of time will greatly help you in your search.

Once you've decided on the particular mood or emotions that you want to evoke with your content, you can match that up with a typeface. Different styles of type create different moods. You need to make sure you're picking one that matches the tone of your content.

So what is serif and sans serif? How do they differ, and how can you tell them apart? 

 

Serif

What is a serif font? This typeface is recognizable by the little lines or strokes that extend from letters. As you can see in the text above, the "i" and "f" have distinguishable feet. The "S" also extends down and up at the ends.

When Is a Serif Typeface Right for You?

Serif typefaces are some of the older typefaces. Because of their age, the mood associated with them is often classic, romantic, elegant, formal, and established. Some well-known serif typefaces include Times New Roman, Georgia, and Garamond. 

Many people believe that serif typefaces should be used in printed works because the little serifs make it easier and quicker for us to identify the different letters, but that might not necessarily be true.

In any case, serif fonts are a good choice when you want your message to convey experience and trustworthiness. Many brands choose serif fonts because they believe it gives customers more confidence in their brand and gives them a better reputation in comparison to brands that use sans serif fonts. 

Types of Serif Fonts

There are three different kinds of serif typefaces: humanist, transitional, and slab serif. There are also a few more categories of serif typefaces, like Renaissance, baroque, modern, and wedge, but we’ll focus on the three listed previously.

1. Humanist Serif

Humanist serif typefaces emulate classical calligraphy with contrasting strokes. Humanist typefaces were the first Roman typefaces. Other characteristics of Humanist typefaces are small x-height and low contrast between strokes. You'll often see classic and traditional content printed with a humanist serif typeface, like books and articles. The font in the image above (Adobe Garamond) is a Humanist serif typeface.

2. Transitional Serif

Transitional serif typefaces have sharper serifs and more contrasting strokes to create a style that's strong and dynamic, and is often used in law or academics. The influence of a pen is gone with Transitional typefaces. An example of this is through the vertical stress in the bowls of letters, meaning the thinnest part of the letter. In a Transitional typeface the thinnest part is completely vertical, whereas in the Humanist typefaces, the vertical stress is actually on a diagonal, since that's how the vertical stress of a letter generally is when words are handwritten. Georgia and Baskerville are Transitional serif typefaces.

3. Slab Serif 

Slab Serif, or Egyptian or square serif, typefaces have heavy and boxy serifs with almost no contrast in the strokes of the letter. This creates a friendly yet authoritative feel, like in a marketing application. New typefaces were needed for advertising and such, so a bolder typeface was needed. Monospaced text is often considered to be Slab Serif. Popular Slab serif typefaces include Courier and Rockwell.     

 

Sans Serif

Sans serif typefaces are considered more modern than serif typefaces. They lack the strokes that distinguish a serif typeface, hence the use of the French word "sans," which means “without.” Sans serif typefaces are often used to signify something clean, minimal, friendly, or modern.

Some of the most popular sans serif typefaces are Arial, Helvetica, Open Sans, Calibri, and Verdana. Sans serif fonts are often used on the web for large groups of text because of the lower DPI (dots per inch) that screens have compared to print. Sans serif fonts are generally easier for children to read because they're simpler.

When Is a Sans Serif Typeface Right for You?

If you want to convey a friendly, approachable vibe, a sans serif typeface may be the best choice. Many companies choose sans serif typefaces when they want to be seen as young, hip, and casual. Start-up and technology companies often use this category of typeface to convey their relatability and cutting-edge style. As we mentioned above, this is also the preferred font style for designing for websites, thanks to the increased readability.

Types of Sans Serif Fonts

There are three main types of sans serif fonts: humanist, transitional, and geometric.

1. Humanist Sans Serif

Humanist sans serif typefaces emulate calligraphy and have minimalist contrasting strokes. These design of these typefaces are good matches for small text and small text, so they're often used in government, education, or finance work. Gill Sans and Whitney are considered Humanist sans serif typefaces.

2. Transitional Sans Serif

Transitional sans serif typefaces have strong strokes and more upright and uniform characters than Humanist typefaces. Their unassuming and modern feel works great for tech and transportation writing.

3. Geometric Sans Serif

Geometric sans serif typefaces use geometric shapes to form the backbones of the letters, which creates a strict, objective, and universal feel. The letter forms are often simple. So letters like "a" that have an opening would be circular or square and then repeated with other letters that have the same type of opening. Geometric typefaces are often used in science or architecture and can be more difficult to read. Europa and Futura PT are examples of Geometric typefaces.   

 

Script

Script typefaces are considered decorative fonts. They're intended to look like they were handwritten or like calligraphy. These fonts are not a great choice for body copy because of their lack of readability. Script typefaces are also more fluid than other typefaces.

When Is a Script Typeface Right for You?

Because script typefaces are more difficult to read, they are best when used sparingly. Some companies choose to use script typefaces as a title. They then revert to a serif or sans serif font for the body paragraphs. Script typefaces are a good option when you want to catch the attention of your audience or convey a handwritten style without actually having to hire a calligrapher or write everything by hand.

There is a little bit of a stigma with using script typefaces, however. Many designers believe that designs that contain script should be created by hand to convey the true "handwritten" aspect. When you hand write something, your letter forms for the same letter will look different just because it was handwritten.

In summary, you should definitely think carefully before using a script typeface. These fonts can be beautiful and powerful when used in the right setting. But in other cases, the choice to use a script typeface may come off as cheesy and difficult to read.

Types of Sans Serif Fonts

Like serif and sans serif typefaces, there are different kinds of scripts that have different meanings. A script typeface can have a strong personality and should be examined carefully before selection. After all, Comic Sans is technically a script typeface.

1. Formal Script

Formal scripts are often graceful and fluid with connecting strokes. Formal typefaces get their inspiration from 17th century formal writing. Traditional wedding invitations use formal script typefaces. They're often used for decoration and for elegant or sophisticated works. Mahogany Script is a Formal script.

2. Casual Script

Casual script typefaces look the most like handwriting, since they're usually more friendly and appear to be drawn with a pen, maker, or brush.  Casual typefaces are often used within ads and more informal settings since they often look like they were written quickly. Black Jack is an example of a Casual script typeface.

3. Calligraphic Script

Calligraphic script typefaces are meant to look like handwriting that's fancy. These typefaces, like casual script, often look like they've been created with a calligraphy pen or brush. Bombshell Pro is Calligraphic script typeface. 

 

Guide to Choosing a Typeface

Now you can answer the question, “What is serif and sans serif?”, but you may still be wondering how to choose the right typeface for your next project. Here are a few tips to help you narrow down your options.

1. Consider Your Brand

The quickest way to choose a typeface is to consider your brand’s style. Are you youthful and energetic? Or formal and refined? Do you want to show off your modern aesthetic, or create an air of authority? As we’ve already discussed, serif and sans serif typefaces give off a completely different vibe, so it’s important to choose the typeface that matches your brand.

2. Don’t Overdo It

It’s easy to get excited about all your typeface options, but it’s usually best to stick with just one or two fonts per project. Using too many typefaces will be confusing to the reader and will leave your brand lacking a cohesive, recognizable style.

3. Feel Free to Mix and Match

Though you probably don’t want to choose more than a few typefaces for your project, you should feel free to mix serif and sans serif fonts. In fact, choosing only one typeface category may look a little bland. Choose one typeface for titles and another typeface for the body paragraph to maximize readability and add interest.

Learn More About Typefaces

Choosing the right typeface will help you more effectively convey your message and create an iconic brand. But learning the difference between serif and sans serif fonts really just scratches the surface of all there is to learn about typefaces.

If you'd like to learn more about typography and making decisions on type, check out some of our typography courses today. Our learning tools can help you elevate your skill set, measure your progress, and learn from some of the best experts in the industry.