When selecting a typeface for any project, one of the first considerations to make is what style of letterform you want to use. In typography, fonts are split into two fundamental categories – serif and sans serif. In this post, we'll discuss what serif and sans serif typefaces are, when to use each kind, and even touch on how combining the two in different ways can yield various results.
The little lines, flourishes, doodads – whatever you might call the small shapes at the ends of some letters' strokes – are known formally as serifs. While serifs are indeed decorative and contribute to the aesthetic of a typeface, they also theoretically serve the purpose of guiding the reader’s eyes from letter to letter more easily while reading. Among the typefaces classified as serifs, there exist many styles including but not limited to old style, such as Garamond and Caslon; slab such as Rockwell and Memphis; and Didone (or modern) typefaces, which include the likes of Bodoni and Didot.
So if a serif typeface is one with the visible additions to ends of the letters’ strokes, then what’s a sans serif? Sans is both the Middle English and Old French form of the Latin sine, which means “without.” Hence, a sans serif face is simply one without serifs. Just as with serif typefaces, there also exists a variety of classifications of sans serifs. Examples of styles of sans serifs include grotesque, such as Franklin Gothic and Helvetica; geometric like Avenir and Futura; and humanistic, as seen with Frutiger and Gill Sans.
When and Why to Use Each
Now that we've established what the difference is between a serif and sans serif typeface, the big question is when should you use each? As mentioned earlier, the traditional reasoning for serifs is that they are supposed to physically aid the reader's eyes as they move along a row of text. However, theory and reality don't always align and, time and time again, studies have failed to support the conclusion that serifs make any measurable impact on legibility or readability.
Similarly, it has been argued that sans serif fonts are better for on-screen reading – and this was true for quite some time. Due to the limitations of display devices, fewer pixels were available to make any given letter form, allowing sans serif fonts to render truer to their print counterparts than serif fonts. But as pixel density has increased with the introduction of high resolution displays, such as 4K and Apple's Retina, the limitations of the past are becoming nonexistent on newer devices.
While the jury is still out on whether serifs (or the lack thereof) have any scientific rationale, they most certainly do affect the tone and overall mood of a body of text. In general serif typefaces convey a more traditional, formal, elegant mood, whereas sans serifs are typically seen as having a more modern, direct, minimal feel. And remember, you don't have to pick just one! Alternating between serif and sans serif fonts creates distinction and hierarchy between body copy, headings, captions and callouts. As illustrated below, by using the same two fonts but swapping the way they are paired, the same page layout can have two very different visual moods.
In Conclusion ...
Taking into account the medium in which your content will be displayed can be important when choosing between serifs or sans serifs, but more important is considering the message itself. The next time you are tasked with choosing a typeface, try and give more thought to the mood you are trying to get across and pick the font that feels right!