The designer’s dilemma: serif or sans serif? - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Typography is a beautiful thing: it gives visual character to the written word, helps direct the reader’s eye, and – if used intelligently – aids readability.

The nuances of typography fill the pages of books. Discussion about lettering reaches far back into time, from Roman stonemasons with chisels in hand, through wooden and metal block printing in Asia, to Gutenberg’s adoption of metal movable type in 15th century Europe and the advent of the printing press.

Typography nowadays is a breeze compared with days of yore. There are reams of advice about when and how to use certain typefaces, and an endless supply of fonts available for use both digitally and in print.  And, if we don’t like what we have created, with a swipe of the screen or the click of a mouse we can alter it.

Although the practice of font management might be more efficient these days, it is no less complex. As designers, developers, and creatives, we need to take every opportunity to think about the smart application of typography – font choice, point size, kerning, tracking, leading, colour, and weighting – in our work. If a day goes by where we haven’t given some consideration to our use of typography, we have missed a trick.

The rise of sans serif

The emergence of the digital age has ushered in the dominance of sans serif. Serifs are the small line extensions at the end of strokes that give a little flair and character to the typeface. Take the following example:

The Alegreya font, an example of a serif font

Notice the foot on the capitalised “R” (foot serif) and the short curved line at the base of the “d” (spur). These are characteristics of serif typefaces.

Serif fonts used to be all the rage but have been less common in recent times as electronic screens become the predominant mode of reading. The belief is that the serifs, particularly in lower point sizes, make the lettering more difficult to read in digital form.

The opposite is considered true for print formats: here serif typefaces are thought to facilitate comprehension, as seen in the pre-eminence for many decades  of fonts such as Times New Roman in print and academic publications.

The reality is, in fact, more nuanced. The question shouldn’t simply be whether to use a serif or sans serif font. It is what is the best font to use from a branding and UX perspective across different viewing media, whether desktop, mobile, print, or physical signage. And that might be serif, sans serif, or a mix of both.

Loco for logos

Let’s take a look at some commercial logos, where sans serif typefaces are increasingly popular, as witnessed in the recent rebrands from Google and Uber.

Google, which once proudly sported a serif logo, dropped its serifs a while ago and now is all in with the clean, modern look of a sans serif.

In explaining its brand refresh, the Google design team said it was eager to preserve in its logo the “simple, friendly, and approachable style” the company is known for.

“We wanted to retain these qualities by combining the mathematical purity of geometric forms with the childlike simplicity of schoolbook letter printing”, the designers wrote. “Our new logotype is set in a custom, geometric sans serif typeface and maintains the multi-coloured playfulness and rotated ‘e’ of our previous mark – a reminder that we’ll always be a bit unconventional”.

At the same time, Google announced the official roll-out of a complementary font – Product Sans – that takes cues “from that same schoolbook letter-printing style, but adopts the neutral consistency we’ve all come to expect from a geometric sans serif”.

Google's new typeface, Product Sans
Google’s new typeface together with its iconic dots and its new multi-coloured logotype

Uber, seeking to rebound from its PR disaster of recent years, also embraced sans serif for its newly developed typeface, Uber Move. Readability and visual impact are high up the priority list for its freshly-minted typeface.

Uber's new typeface - Uber Move
Uber’s new typeface, Uber Move.

Not all brands go for sans serif, though. Honda famously uses a thick “slab serif” in its signature “H”, whereas fashion magazines such as Vogue positively love Bodoni.

Two is better than one

As so often in life, it needn’t be an either/or. Pairing one serif and one sans serif font in the same publication—whether print or on screen—is a smart way of getting the best of both worlds.

Magazines do it frequently, running the title in serif and the rest of the front page in bolded sans serif. It achieves a pleasant balance of character and legibility, particularly effective for cover pages.

Again, the question is less about whether or not to include a serif font, but to comprehensively consider all the elements that come with typeface design and selection.

  • What kind of brand character do I wish to express through my typeface?
  • How will my typeface render in different environments, desktop vs mobile or sticker vs physical sign, for example?
  • How does my typeface work at bigger and smaller point sizes and with different weightings from the font family?
  • What options do I have for pairing with another font?
  • Have I experimented with thin, medium, bold, italicised and condensed versions?
  • How does my typeface work within my wider design system?

Rather than getting sidelined by whether to select a serif or a sans serif typeface, these are the questions to be asking carefully.

Embrace experimentation

It’s not that serif fonts are somehow superior to sans serif, or vice versa. As with many things, it is a matter of taste.

Some serif typefaces are overly ornate or whimsical to certain eyes, while others find the childlike simplicity of Google’s custom typeface basic and uninspiring. The bold tones of Uber’s new typeface convey confidence and weight, but some may find the look oppressive. You are not going to please all of the people all of the time.

Whatever your preference, the prevalence of sans serif typefaces in digital media won’t last forever. With continued improvements in screen display technology, there will come a time when looking at any size screen will be similar to looking at ink. Blurry serifs at low resolution will be a thing of the past.

Ultimately, have fun experimenting with your fonts and see what works and doesn’t. Fonts make words look interesting, and being interesting is the first step to becoming remarkable. Serif or sans serif, always aim to stand out from the crowd.

Are you all for serif, or are you strictly sans? Let us know in a comment and tell us why you feel that way.

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