A sans serif font, also called a sans or gothic font, is a typeface that lacks serifs, the small ornaments at the bottoms and tops of letters. The font used on many websites is in this font, and you may note that it looks relatively plain and unadorned, and also that it renders crisply and clearly on the computer screen. Many serif fonts dither when translated to the screen, and as a result web designers prefer to use the fonts for readability. The first half of the name is derived from the French sans, which means “without.”
A serif font has letters with varying line width and ornamental features that make each letter highly distinctive. These fonts derive from calligraphy and handwritten pieces, and retain many of the characteristics that make calligraphy distinctive. In the early 19th century, designers of typefaces began to toy with the idea of removing serifs from their fonts, but the idea did not attain popularity until the 1920s and 1930s, when sans serif fonts exploded in advertising and newspaper headlines. Both types of fonts are widely used around the world today, depending on personal preference and application.
A sans serif font tends to look highly modern, as modern advertising design was the first field in which these fonts were widely used. There are actually a number of families of sans serif fonts, starting with grotesque and neo-grotesque, early fonts similar to Arial that tend to look very plain and unornamented. The name comes from popular slang among typographers, which called these fonts “grotesque.” Next come humanist fonts, which have more variation in line width and personality. Modernist design also incorporates a lot of geometric fonts, which rely on angular geometric shapes for their letters.
Some classic examples of sans serif fonts include Helvetica, Verdana, and Futura. The dramatic appearance differences between these fonts shows how they have diverged, just as serif fonts have. Some popular applications for them include advertising design, headlines, and the Internet, as a sans font is darker and more distinct, making it easy to see and recognize. Serif fonts are still heavily used in books, magazines, and newspapers because they are somewhat easier to read. The serifs help to draw the eye and hold focus on a line of text, while reading large blocks of sans serif text can be difficult.