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, Highway 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.
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.
The Franklin Gothic typeface (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 signpainting 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 linespacing. Most avoid having a true italic in favour of a more restrained oblique or sloped design, although at least sans-serif true italics were offered.
Examples of grotesque fonts include Akzidenz Grotesk, Venus, News Gothic, Franklin Gothic and Monotype Grotesque, though some digital releases of these reduce their eccentricities in order to make them more suitable to modern tastes. Akzidenz Grotesk Old Face, Knockout, Grotesque No. 9 and Monotype Grotesque are examples of digital fonts that retain eccentricities of early sans-serif types. The term realist has also been applied to these designs due to their practicality and simplicity.
The Helvetica typeface (Neo-grotesque)
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, neogrotesques 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 (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. Other examples include: Rail Alphabet, Acumin, San Francisco and Roboto.
The Futura typeface (Geometric)
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 letter „O“ and a „single-story“ lowercase letter „a„. Of these four categories, geometric fonts tend to be the least useful for body text and often used for headings and small passages of text.
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 1920’s and 30’s due to their clean, modern design, and many new geometric designs and revivals have been created since. Notable geometric types of the period include Kabel, Nobel and Metro; more recent designs in the style include ITC Avant Garde, Brandon Grotesque, Gotham and Avenir. 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 considered „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. Designs considered geometric in principles but which are less descended from the Futura/Erbar/Kabel tradition include Bank Gothic, DIN 1451, Eurostile and Handel Gothic.
Sans-serifs 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 of c. 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 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 Herman Zapf’s URW Grotesk. Other „trans-sans“ designs include Whitney and Klavika. 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 stroke contrast, which have been called ‘modulated’ 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 calligraphy or painted lettering, grotesque or humanist fonts.
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.
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, 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, 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. Among the architects, 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. 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.
In London, ‘Egyptian’ lettering became popular for advertising, apparently because of the „astonishing“ effect the unusual style had on the public. Historian James Mosley, the leading expert on early revival of sans-serif letters, has written 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 was shown in the European Magazine of 1805. However, the style did not become used in printing for some more years. (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.) Around 1816, the Ordnance Survey began to use ‘Egyptian’ lettering, monoline sans-serif capitals, to mark ancient Roman sites. This lettering was printed from copper plate engraving.
Around 1816, William Caslon IV produced the first sans-serif printing type in England for Latin characters, 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. No uses of it from the period have been found; Mosley speculates that it may have been commissioned by a specific client. Another hiatus followed until sans-serifs began again to be issued by London typefounders from around 1830 onwards, such as Vincent Figgins and Thorogood. These were quite different in design, arrestingly bold and similar in aesthetic to the slab serif and „fat faces“ of the period. Intended for advertising, these typefaces, often display capitals, became very successful.
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 very 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 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), by Peter Behrens, in 1900.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sans-serif types were viewed with suspicion by many printers, especially those of fine books, 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 and complex designs were created. As Updike’s comments suggest, the 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. 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.
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 font.
Other names for sans-serif
- 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, 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’. Some fonts, such as Antique Olive, still carry the name.
- Grotesque: It was originally coined by William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry in 1832. 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. 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. The term probably derived from the architectural definition, which is neither Greek nor Roman, and from the extended adjective term of „Germany“, which was the place where sans-serif typefaces became popular in the 19th to 20th centuries. 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.
- 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.
- 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. Presumably refers to the popularity of sans-serif grotesque and neo-grotesque types in Switzerland.
- Industrial: used to refer to grotesque and neo-grotesque sans-serifs, that unlike humanist, geometric and decorative designs are not based on „artistic“ principles.
Humanist sans-serif typefaces
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