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What is a Sans Serif Font?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 20, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Perdido — On Jul 04, 2011

I make the ads for our company's webpage, and I was instructed during training never to use a serif font for a web ad. I tried it one time and previewed it, just to see what it would look like.

The ad was a small block ad, only 250x250 pixels big. It had a headline and a subheader with two lines of smaller text.

The serif font looked okay on the headline, but on the subheader, it started to lose clarity. The smaller two lines of text were illegible. I was glad that I only did this as an experiment, or I would have gotten into trouble.

My computer actually has a list of web safe fonts. This list came installed on the computer when the company bought it. I try to stick with these while designing.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 03, 2011

I am responsible for typing up legal advertisements and disclaimers. Often, this text is lengthy and has to fit within a certain space.

That is why I prefer using condensed sans serif fonts. There are no wispy pieces to distract from the text and make it hard to read, and the squished letters fit much better into the allotted space.

I often use the Swiss Condensed fonts. I alternate between the book, medium, bold, and black condensed typefaces, depending on what has to be emphasized and what is just the body of the document.

By orangey03 — On Jul 02, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I am a graphic designer too, and I understand why you would pick a serif font for a salon. However, some stylized sans serif fonts lend themselves wonderfully to businesses like hair salons and photographers.

I love the Avant Garde font. The rounded letters give it a chic feel, and I often use it in ads for boutiques or salons. Also, the Camella, Brisk, and EnviroD fonts work beautifully for businesses who want to portray a modern yet stylish image.

There are also sans serif versions of traditionally serif fonts. Times New Roman Sans Serif has a very unique look, making it nothing like the serif version. Goudy Sans Serif also has distinctive edges that cannot be defined as serifs.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 02, 2011

In my job as a newspaper advertising designer, I used the sans serif fonts list extensively. Though I could have used these fonts for just about any ad, some types of businesses were better represented by them than others.

Every time I started an ad from scratch, I would consider serif vs sans serif. If the ad was for a high-class nail salon or wedding photography business, I tended to prefer serif fonts for their delicate wisps. If I was designing an ad for a construction company, however, I would use a nice chunky sans serif font to convey a strong, masculine image.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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