Category of type where the terminals of the letters have no brackets or spurs – otherwise known as serifs. Common sans serif typefaces are Helvetica, Verdana, Optima, Futura, Frutiger, and Gill Sans. Sans serif forms originate in ancient Greek and Etruscan chiseled inscriptions, a style later adopted by the Romans, but sans serif type was so novel upon its introduction in the 18th century that it defied any attempts at categorization. It was eventually categorized as Doric, Ionic or Grotesque type, and was in common use by the end of the century by industrial letterers. The most popular early sans serif typeface was cut by Monotype as Doric, but the most prominent sans serif type known to contemporary designers is the much-imitated Akzidenz Grotesk, ancestor of Helvetica and Univers, two of the most dominant type families of the second half of the 20th century.
Sans serif types underwent a flowering in the early 20th century, and started to divide into many other families. The first prominent step beyond the Grotesque industrial types was the development of the geometric sans faces promulgated by designers influenced by the Bauhaus. These faces are built, as the name suggests, on “pure” geometric structures, and self-consciously move beyond the modulated strokes and classical proportions mimicked by the grotesques (as well as the serif faces on which grotesques were modeled). Jan Tschichold, Paul Renner, Rudolf Koch, and Jakob Erbar all developed profoundly influential geometric sans types. Paul Renner’s Futura, in particular, was an early example of a type system, and continues to be a very popular, coolly stylish type family even today.
The next – or concurrent – development in sans serif types was the humanist sans, as exemplified in Eric Gill’s Gill Sans, which was in turn based on Edward Johnston’s lettering for the London Underground. Humanist sans typefaces more directly mimic the forms and structures of Calligraphy, and generally have somewhat eccentric, more classical shapes. Humanist sans faces have more modulated strokes, and their Italics are frequently more directly based on Cursive writing. They have always been more popular, for whatever reason, in Europe than the United States.
Grotesques staged a huge comeback in the wake of World War II, with the development of type systems and Swiss typography. Max Miedinger’s Helvetica and Adrian Frutiger’s Univers are the most successful examples of these types. The new grotesques were designed for a new typography, where type was set to a rationalized grid system, and the “characterless” type was intended to transparently serve the text. The readability of sans serif types as text faces is hotly debated, though, and Helvetica and Univers found their greatest fame as advertising and corporate communications faces. A strange side development during this period was Hermann Zapf’s more or less sui generis revival of Roman inscriptional forms with Optima, a stately sans serif that is frequently characterized as a humanist sans, although it really belongs to no category but its own.
Sans serifs played an integral part in the explosion of display faces that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. The number of typefaces and styles is innumerable, but one of the most characteristic fonts of this period was Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde, a Ligature-heavy stylized geometric sans that was ubiquitous throughout the 1970s.
The last twenty years of the 20th Century saw an overwhelming increase in the number of sans serif faces, of all kinds and descriptions. The kickoff to this explosion was probably the introduction of Adrian Frutiger’s eponymous type family Frutiger, a sort of master thesis on the possibilities of rationalism in type and the possibilities of the restrained use of humanist techniques in the construction of sans serif type. It has been much imitated and admired. Frutiger was not content with this, and later participated in the systemization of many of his type families, first revisiting the concept of the geometric sans with Avenir, and later revising both the Univers and Avenir type systems with Linotype Univers and Avenir Next. At the same time, Hermann Zapf and Akira Kobayashi revisted Optima, producing a new version called Optima nova that brought the typeface into line with current fashion, adding a true italic, making the face more suitable for setting text, and adding a range of weights to the face. It is cleaner and more functional but not universally loved.
Meanwhile, Dutch type designers, many of them studying under the influential theorist and teacher Gerrit Noordzij, were taking the humanist sans and making it their own. Building on the legacy of Hans Eduard Meier’s ahead-of-its-time Syntax, they created a new collection of typefaces that were essentially graceful, Renaissance serif faces minus the serifs. These new sans serif families were often part of ever-larger type systems that encompassed sans serif, serif, and other typefaces, culminating in efforts like Lucas de Groot’s huge Thesis family. It can sometimes be hard to tell the players without a scorecard, but careful study of the Dutch humanist sans faces will reveal their considerable subtlety and sophistication.
English type designers have continued to work in the mold of Eric Gill, whose types have had a near death-grip on the English imagination. Gill Sans is everywhere in England even today, and most English sans serif designs owe it a debt of inspiration. Probably one of the best interpretations of the “English humanist sans” is Jeremy Tankard’s Bliss family, which does for Gill Sans what TheSans does for Syntax – cleans it up, systematizes and freshens it.
Because of their supposed neutrality, sans serif faces have continued to be massively popular for corporate identity and communications. This is the aspect that American designers have explored most thoroughly, with Matthew Carter leading the way with his commissioned work for Microsoft showing what can be done with small type on low-resolution screens. His Verdana and Tahoma families were designed for the screen and extensively hinted; they sacrifice economy for readability, a sensible decision when scrolling is cheap but pixels are scarce. Pushing things in a different direction are Hoefler & Frere-Jones, who have recently produced both Whitney and Gotham, faces designed explicitly for use in the corporate vernacular. Gotham, in particular, is based on the Grotesque sans serif hand-lettering found in New York, and possesses some of the erratic energy found in that lettering. It was recently honored by being selected as the typeface used on the cornerstone for the September 11th Memorial at the World Trade Center.
Many type enthusiasts are very tired of the profusely overabundant Helvetica and outraged by the ubiquitousness of Arial, a near-exact (but uglier) Helvetica clone commissioned by Microsoft for obscure reasons. Proclaiming Arial as your favorite font is likely to win you few friends on Typophile.
* Serif vs. Sans Serif: A discussion on Blogdorf about serif vs. sans serif type.