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(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. The term comes from the French word sans, meaning "without" and "serif" from the Dutch word schreef meaning "line". 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.
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, Highway Gothic, or Trade Gothic.
The first sans-serif types were developed in the 18th century. They became popular in printed media in the early 19th century, at first under the term grotesque, as the omission of serifs was a significant departure from hundreds of years of tradition in printed text.
Letters without serifs historically appear in epigraphy, especially in casual, non-monumental epigraphy (while serifs were developed for monumental inscriptions in Roman capitals in the Roman imperial era). The earliest typesets which omitted serifs were not intended to render contemporary texts, but to represent ancient inscriptions. 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.
In late 18th century, Neoclassicism led to architects 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.
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). 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. The design was eventually known as Haüy type.
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.
In London, 'Egyptian' lettering was popular for advertising, apparently because of the "astonishing" effect the unusual style had on the public.
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.
Sans-serifs were popular due to their clarity and legibility at distance in advertising and display use, when printed very large or very small. For this reason, many early sans-serif designs did not feature lower-case letters, as these were not needed. In addition, much early sans-serif signage was not actually printed but hand-painted or lettered, since large signs were difficult to print and could easily be drawn by hand.
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 century sans-serif types were viewed with suspicion by printers 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. As late as 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. By the mid-century, neo-grotesque fonts such as Univers and Helvetica had become popular through 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[who?] 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 19th to 20th century. 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.
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 the early (19th century to early 20th) sans-serif designs. Influenced by Didone serif fonts of the period and signpainting, these were often quite solid, bold designs suitable for headlines and advertisements. Because for this purpose they were not needed, many did not feature a lower case or italics. 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 a vertical axis and 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.The term realist has also been applied to grotesque designs due to their practicality and simplicity. Most avoid having a true italic in favour of a more restrained oblique or sloped design, although at least some did have true italics.
Examples of grotesque fonts include Akzidenz Grotesk, 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 by Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Monotype Grotesque are examples of digital fonts that retain the characteristics of early sans-serif types.
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.
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.
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". 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. Geometric sans-serif fonts were popular from the 1920s and 30s due to their clean, modern design, and many new geometric designs and revivals have been created since.
These are the most calligraphic of the sans-serif typefaces. Many take extensive inspiration from serif fonts, with true italic designs, ligatures and even swashes in italic. Humanist sans-serif designs are often particularly legible on screen or at distance due to their wide apertures or separation between strokes.
One of the earliest humanist designs was Johnston (Edward Johnston, 1916), and, a decade later, Gill Sans (Eric Gill, 1928). Edward Johnston, a calligrapher by profession, was inspired by classic letter forms, with capitals based on roman inscriptions.
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 Stellar, Lydian, Rotis SemiSans, and 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 the capitals of Gill Sans and Johnston, which like Roman capitals are often based on perfect squares, half-squares and circles. These somewhat architectural designs may feel too stiff for body text. Others such as Syntax may more resemble handwriting, while Goudy Sans is influenced by signpainting.
The category saw particular development during the 1980s and 1990s, especially as a reaction against the overwhelming popularity of Helvetica and Univers. Designs from this period intended for print use include FF Meta, Myriad, Thesis, Charlotte Sans and Scala Sans, while Frutiger, slightly earlier, has been particularly influential.
In addition, with the development of computers, many fonts commissioned for onscreen use have been humanist due to their legibility. These include Microsoft's Tahoma, Trebuchet, Verdana, Calibri and Corbel, as well as Lucida Grande, Fira Sans and Droid Sans.
Due to the diversity of sans-serif fonts, many do not fit into just one of the above categories. For example, Neuzeit S has both neo-grotesque and geometric influences, as does Herman Zapf's URW Grotesk. A particular genre of sans-serifs is those with stroke contrast, which have been called 'modulated' sans-serifs. These may take inspiration from calligraphy, grotesque or humanist designs.
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.
- List of sans serif typefaces
- East Asian sans-serif typeface
- Roman type
- Italic type
- Emphasis (typography)
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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.
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