Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 8. Sans Serif Classifications

Sans Serif Type

Developed long after the establishment of Serif types, Sans Serif styles constitute a large number of fonts available for a variety of both text and display applications. Speaking chronologically, there is evidence of the first uses of movable type Sans Serif words and letters occurring in the latter half of the 18th century, however, the first complete type specimen is attributed to William Caslon IV who produced Caslon Egyptian in 1816. Quite coincidentally, the popularity of Sans Serif types parallels the development and use of Slab-Serif fonts. Both styles were thought to be well adapted to printed materials produced for public displays owing to the boldness of the original designs. Sans Serif letterforms are easily distinguished by their clean simple rectangular ending of strokes.

There are two possible directions that can be taken when referring to the classification of Sans Serif types, the first being a historical approach, and the second being a stylistic one. The historical approach would include categories such as Grotesque, Neo-Grotesque, Black Letter, etc. A stylistic classifications of Sans Serif typestyles includes Classical, also called Humanist, Old Style, or Egyptian; Modern also called Transitional, Realist, Universal, or Utilitarian; Grotesque or Grotesk, also called Gothic; Geometric also called Super-Shape; and Italic also called Slanted or Oblique. The following takes is based on a stylistic approach to categorizing Sans Serif types.

Misnomer Vocabulary

When Sans Serifs styles first appeared, type critics and historians considered them to be unrefined and ugly, thus christening them with the descriptive term “Grotesk” or “Grotesque”. The term came from an association caused by the comparison of the then newly introduced Sans Serif types to the very elegant Modern serif types that were introduced only 20 years prior.

Another term that was coined by type scholars of the early 19th century and crept into the descriptive vernacular of Sans Serif types  was “Black” or “Black Letter”. The name was inspired by the heavy dark appearance of letters and a lack of contrast between horizontal and vertical letter strokes.

Sans Serif movable types of the 1800’s represented a kind of letterform design that essentially established a whole new form for letterform strokes. Their introduction was controversial and difficult to classify for type critics and scholars. To deal with this problem many looked back in history at prior styles of letterforms to help with the classification of these new types. They saw a similarity to the thick bold structures that were inherent in Gothic types, so another label they came up with for Sans Serif types was “Gothic”.

Humanist/Classical/Old Style/Egyptian

Like Old Style Serif types, Humanist Sans Serif letterforms display many of the same characteristics. One way to identify Humanist San Serif types is by letterform proportions that reflect those of ancient Roman letters that were based on the Golden Section. This variety of Humanist styles are made up of letterforms that vary in width, with letters B, E, F, J, L, P, and S having a strong vertical 2:1 height to width ratio emphasis; while A, D, H, K, N, R, T, U, V, X, Y, and Z are closer to a 9:8 nearly square ratio; round letter such as C, G, O, and Q are based on a 1:1 ratio circle; and the width of letters M and W extend beyond the height ratio to a 9:10 ratio.

Humanist types may also exhibit one or more of the following traits; a calligraphic appearance to letters; lowercase letterforms with a smaller waist or x-height in comparison to cap-height; and letterforms that display a marked contrast between thick and thin strokes.

Examples of Humanist Sans Serif fonts include Calibri, Gill Sans, Frutiger, Lucida Sans, Myriad, Optima, Syntax, and Verdana.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Soon after William Caslon IV’s Caslon Egyptian type, Grotesque types came into popularity and are still in usage. These types differ from Humanist style types in that they do not display calligraphically influenced letter strokes, but instead are made up of strokes more reminiscent of Modern Sans Serif types. Appearing to be somewhat primitive versions of Modern types, none-the-less, some Grotesque types display minor script-inspired Humanist traits.

Grotesque types are constructed with even-width horizontal and vertical strokes; have some angled vertical stroke ends, as on the lower-case t and s; and stroke extensions that occur on some letterforms such as the upper-case G and the lower-case a and y. 

Examples of Grotesque types include, Akidenz-Grotesk, Franklin Gothic, News Gothic, Standard, and Trade Gothic.

Grotesque. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Gothic. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Gothic. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Modern Sans Serif text types differ from Humanist styles in several respects. They are based on Modern letterform proportioning, which relies on a common optical width on to base all the alphabet letters. To achieve an even width appearance, Modern proportioned letterforms contain subtle width variations to compensate for optical deceptions. This is done with the intention of having all the letters to look as though they are the same width. The utilitarian design of Modern San Serif types has contributed to their universal appeal for applications that require fonts to be highly visible and legible.

In addition to optical proportioning, Modern Sans Serif letterforms have little contrast between thick and thin strokes; lowercase letterforms with a taller waist relationship to cap-height; a simple utilitarian appearance; larger more open counters; and well defined negative spaces.

Examples of Modern Sans Serif fonts include Arial, Folio, Haas Unica, Helvetica, and Univers, 

Modern. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Modern. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Modern. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Typestyles that fall into this category of Sans Serif classification are structurally tied to regimented geometric shapes. This requires some sacrifice of functionality when readability and legibility are considered. Geometric types place regularity of form and aesthetic above usability and function. For this reason Geometric types are better suited for titling or display purposes and are seldom used for paragraphs of text. Geometric fonts integrate particularly well when embedded into other forms of graphical symbols and imagery.

Many letterforms in Geometric fonts share a common structure, which is based on a standard geometric shape or a customized shape, so different letters may appear to be based on a common shape and display the same width; round letters like C, G, O, and Q share a common structure, and other letters such as D, E, F, L, S, and U may also be based on that same structure. Some Geometric fonts may be comprised exclusively of upper-case letters, while others contain both upper and lower-case.

Examples of Geometric Sans Serif fonts include Avant Garde, Eurostyle, Futura, Handel, Kabel, and Spartan.

Geometric. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Geometric. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Geometric. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Unlike Italic Serif text types, which in many cases were developed as stand-alone fonts, Italic Sans Serif text types were usually the result of adapting a non-italic version of a typestyle to an italic slant. This was done to add flexibility to font styles for use in more complex hierarchical typographic arrangements. Sans Serif types that were developed for specialized display purposes only have been developed as stand-alone fonts with no non-italic version.

The main characteristic of Italic Sans Serif types is their slanted appearance. They are accurate representations of their original non-italic structure. Other stylistic traits of Italic types include a slight condensing of letterforms for efficient use of space. Sans Serif types are available in Humanist, Grotesque, Modern, and Geometric styles.

Italic Vs. Italicized
There is a difference between an italic version of a Sans Serif font and an italicized or oblique version. In the sample of Gill Sans Italic below, the lower case a is a cursive style letter. Italic styles display an influence from hand written style while oblique fonts will display a slanted non cursive version of their regular counterparts as is evident in the Avenir Oblique sample below.

There are many examples of Italic and Oblique Sans Serif fonts including Avenir Oblique, Franklin Gothic Italic, Futura Italic, Gill Sans Italic, Helvetica Italic, and Univers 67 Oblique.

Oblique. Layout courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Italic. Layout courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Oblique. Layout courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Disclaimer: The original versions of fonts that were designed as either hot metal movable type or film based type may be different from the digitally formatted types that are in common use today. In many cases these fonts have been redrawn and adapted to digital technology.