Serif vs Sans

Know your font types

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Serif vs Sans: Know your Font types

Understanding typography and font types is an important skill for any designer. We look at two of the most prominent font types and how you can adapt them to your next project.

by Peter Burch  @ptburch  petertburch 16th March, 2018 read time: 5 mins

Knowledge of font types will not only will it help you decide complementary type pairs – but it will also help you to clearly explain design decisions and rationale to your clients. In this article, we look at Serif vs Sans fonts and the primary differences of each style.

Serif Fonts

Serif fonts are amongst the most popular forms of type and also the most traditional. A serif is a small line attached to the end of a stroke in a letter or symbol. These small lines can vary in length and weight and can be straight or angled. A typeface containing serifs is classed as a serif typeface. Some sources also refer to serif typefaces as “Roman”, for example, “Times New Roman”.

The serif style is most famously used for typesetting within print such as newspapers and books. It is most suitable for body text and large display text.

Serif Fonts Times
The Times makes compelling use of serif fonts within web and print.

Historically, web and motion designers steered clear from serif fonts due to their clarity on screen, for instance, before the days of smartphones, tablets, and HDMI, most computer and television screens ran at a relatively low resolution of 72 dots per inch, meaning that small serifs were unclear and impaired legibility. This is less often the case now as most smart devices and have a resolution of 220dpi and above.

When using serif fonts, try to limit your design to no more than 2 typefaces to avoid looking haphazard.

Sans Serif Fonts

Sans is a French word that translates to “without”.

As the etymology suggests, sans serif typefaces lack any embellishment on the letters, adopting a more simplified form. Sans serif letters can be thick or thin, short or tall, wide or condensed. The best sans serif fonts have sets at least 6 – 8 different weights, ranging from Ultralight (the thinnest) to Black (the thickest).

The Healthy Back Bag use sans serif fonts at multiple weights to place emphasis on key information. When using Ultralight or Thin fonts in print ensure they are at a reasonable point size. If they are too small they can often experience print issues affecting legibility. Credit: Design by March

Often referred to simply as “sans” fonts, their style is equally adept for display fonts and body copy. The greatest usage, however, is within digital. The versatility of sans serif fonts and legibility on digital screens means they are the most prominently used style across websites and apps.

Serif vs Sans Fonts
Connect Search use a combination of two sans serif fonts to create a sleek, stylish and modern design. Credit: Design by March.

Their ease of legibility resulted in road and transport signage being changed to sans serif. Motorists have just a few moments to read and recognise signs –– for this reason, they are generally in Title Case sans, for instance, in the UK the standard font is Transport while the New York metro system was famously converted to Helvetica.

Pairing Serif and Sans Serif Fonts

Serif fonts can be paired with sans serif fonts to harmonise and complement your design. When used in a well-considered manner the combination of Serif vs Sans can result in striking visuals.

Some excellent Serif / Sans Serif font pairings include:

  • Garamond / Helvetica
  • Utopia / Proxima Nova
  • Cardo / Josefin Sans
  • Minion / Avenir
Jewellery Typography
Jewellery designer Julia Lloyd George blends Freight Display Pro with Lato to evoke a luxurious, classical design.

Continue Reading: Know your font types Part II: Slab vs Script

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