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Serif and sans-serif 01.svg Sans-serif font
Serif and sans-serif 02.svg Serif font
Serif and sans-serif 03.svg Serif font
(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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

Sans-serif fonts are sometimes, especially in older documents, used as a device for emphasis, due to their typically blacker type color.


Simple sans-serif capitals on a late nineteenth-century memorial, London
The January 13, 1898 edition of L'Aurore (the "J'accuse" issue): An early example of sans-serif in the media. Select headlines are in a sans-serif typeface.

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.[3] The term 'grotesque' comes from Italian 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'.[4]

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.[5]

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).[6] 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.[7] The design was eventually known as Haüy type.[8]

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.[9]

In London, 'Egyptian' lettering was popular for advertising, apparently because of the "astonishing" effect the unusual style had on the public.[10]

In 1816, the Ordnance Survey began to use 'Egyptian' type, which was printed using copper plate engraving of monoline sans-serif capital letters, to name ancient Roman sites.[9]

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.[11] Originally cut in 1812.[12]

Sans-serifs were popular due to their clarity and legibility at distance in advertising and display use, when printed very large or very small. Much early sans-serif signage was not actually printed but hand-painted, carved lettered, since large signs were difficult to print but could easily be painted by hand. (This makes tracing the descent of sans-serif styles hard, since a trend can arrive in the printed record from a signpainting tradition which has left less of a record.) 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 on tombstones of the Victorian period in Britain.

Sans-serif type in both upper- and lower-case on a 1914 poster.

The first Grotesque typeface complete with lower-case letters was probably cast by the Schelter & Giesecke Foundry as early as 1825.[13]

The term sans-serif was first employed in 1832 by Vincent Figgins.[14]

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),[15] by Peter Behrens, in 1900.[16]

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.[17] 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. As late as 1922, master printer Daniel Berkeley Updike described sans-serif fonts as having "no place in any artistically respectable composing-room."[18] 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.[19]

Rothbury, an early modulated sans-serif font from 1915. The strokes vary in width considerably.

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.[20][21][22][23] 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.[24] 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.[25][26][27][28][29]

Other names for sans-serif

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Three sans-serif italics. News Gothic, a 1908 grotesque design, has an oblique. Gothic Italic no. 124, an 1890s grotesque, has a true italic resembling Didone serifs of the period.[30] Seravek, a modern humanist font, has a more calligraphic italic.

Early appellatives

  • 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,[9] 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'.[5] Some fonts, such as Antique Olive, still carry the name.
  • Grotesque: It was originally coined by William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry in 1832.[13] 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.[31] 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.[32] The term probably derived from the architectural definition, which is neither Greek nor Roman,[33] and from the extended adjective term of "Germany", which was the place where sans-serif typefaces became popular in 19th to 20th century.[34] 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.

Recent appellatives

  • 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.[35]
  • 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.[36][37][38] Presumably refers to the popularity of sans-serif grotesque and neo-grotesque types in Switzerland.


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.[39][40]


The Franklin Gothic typeface (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. Many 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.[25][41] 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. Capitals tend to fit within a square in the regular 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.[4] Most avoid having a true italic in favour of a more restrained oblique or sloped design, although at least some did have true italics.[30]

Examples of grotesque fonts include Akzidenz Grotesk, 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 by Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Monotype Grotesque are examples of digital fonts that retain the characteristics of early sans-serif types.[42][43][44][45] 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.

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.[46]

Other examples include: Rail Alphabet, Highway Gothic, Arial, Bell Centennial, MS Sans Serif, Acumin, San Francisco and Roboto.

Like some grotesque typefaces, neogrotesques often feature a '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 Arial are less regular.


The Futura typeface (Geometric)

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).[47] 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.[48] 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. A separate inspiration for many geometric types has been the simplified shapes of letters engraved or stencilled on metal and plastic in industrial use, which often follow a simplified geometric design.

Notable geometric types include Kabel, Nobel, ITC Avant Garde, Century Gothic, Gotham, Avenir, URW Grotesk and Drogowskaz. Designs considered geometric in style but which are less descended from the Futura/Erbar/Kabel tradition include Bank Gothic, DIN 1451 and Eurostile.


The Tahoma typeface (Humanist)

These are the most calligraphic of the sans-serif typefaces. Many take extensive inspiration from serif fonts, with true italics rather than an oblique, ligatures and even swashes in italic.

One of the earliest humanist designs was Johnston (Edward Johnston, 1916), and, a decade later, Gill Sans (Eric Gill, 1928).[49] 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.[50] Some humanist designs have stroke modulation (strokes that clearly vary in width along their line) or alternating thick and thin strokes. These include Lydian, Stellar, Rotis SemiSans, and most popularly Hermann Zapf's Optima (1958), a typeface expressly designed to be suitable for both display and body text.[51] 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. These somewhat architectural designs may feel too stiff for body text.[49] 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.[52][53][54][55] Designs from this period intended for print use include FF Meta, Myriad, Thesis, Charlotte Sans 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, while Klavika blends humanist and geometric influences.

A particular subgenre of sans-serifs is those 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.[56] In addition, many capitals-only sans-serifs of the nineteenth century have a naturally geometric design, but are classified in the grotesque genre.

Sans-serif analogues in non-Latin scripts

From left to right: a serif typeface with serifs in red, a serif typeface and a sans-serif typeface.

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.


This gallery presents images of sans-serif font use across different times and places from early to recent. Particular attention is given to unusual uses and more obscure fonts, meaning this gallery should not be considered a representative sampling.

See also


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  2. Serifs more used for headlines
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  12. William Caslon IV's sans serif
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  14. Meggs 2011, p. 149.
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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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