To Serif or Sans-Serif. That is the question.

In typography, serifs are the small lines tailing from the edges of letters and symbols, such as when handwriting is separated into distinct units for a typewriter or typesetter. A typeface with serifs is called a serif typeface (or serifed typeface). A typeface without serifs is called sans serif or sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without”. Some typography sources refer to sans-serif typefaces as “Grotesque” (in German “grotesk”) or “Gothic”, and serif typefaces as “Roman”. (Wikipedia) 

There are several theories as to the origins of serifs. In one theory the Roman letter outlines were first painted onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks to tidy the ends of lines as they were chiseled into stone. Theory number 2 compares serifs to hand written text; where individual letters are connected, proposing that the serifs mimic the connection between the letters for easier readability. And there are more ideas.

Serif’s terminology

Descenders and ascenders, ligatures and terminals.

graphic design vancouver

Two main types of Serifs are Adnate and Abrupt

  • Adnate serif flows smoothly to or from the stem and is more ornate.
  • Abrupt serif breaks suddenly from the stem at an angle, is squarer and more rigid, and doesn’t flow into the base letterform.


Serif vs Sans-Serif

This is still an ongoing debate. The classic point of view claims that serif font is more readable when it comes to longer text, like the main body of a book. It has merit of course, but then there are many serif fonts that are hard to read as well. Another question to ask is where is the text. Is it in a book printed on paper or displayed on a monitor on a web page?

If you read my post Typography can be fun with few basic rules, then you remember that when we read text, our eyes don’t read each letter, rather we scan the top of words. Serifs help in this case to better identify and connect the words. So maybe serif is easier to read?

But wait, when it comes to text, size matters. Serifs may create visual noise at very small sizes, detracting from the main body shape of the letter. Again something that is hard to confirm; as no real testing has been documented.

Should headlines and sub headlines be serif or sans-serif? The classic view suggests using sans-serif for boldness and simplicity, but again, it depends on the “look” of the font. Let’s not forget that we have so many more choices when it comes to “look and feel” of a typeface. The old views regarding this don’t apply.

So I didn’t help in the decision which choice is better. What does matter and what you need to always keep in mind, are the rules of typography such as leading and kerning. I will cover this in one of my next posts.