Western Sans Serif Usage and Limitations

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Ken Kamal's picture
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Joined: 20 Mar 2006 - 8:52pm
Western Sans Serif Usage and Limitations
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Having lived in the UK for an extended period of time and recently moved back to my home country of Malaysia, I found it fascinating how dominating the usage of Sans Serif is in the West. Furthermore, usage seems to be completely limited to the following fonts or their derivatives;

Arial
Helvetica
Myriad
DIN / Blender / etc.
Gill Sans

Every website and corporate signage appears to be using at least one of the above. I once spoke to a typographer from a Big Agency that will remain nameless who essentially said the above are all you need for readability from a long distance, and as such these fonts will continue to dominate. Serif gets dated quickly and is not good for prominent signage display.

I found the above statement fascinating, and I was wondering what your opinions were on the subject.

Ken Kamal — Branding Strategy and Design
http://brandlibra.com
info@brandlibra.com

Carl Crossgrove's picture
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Joined: 8 Sep 2003 - 2:07pm
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Fear.

Nick Shinn's picture
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Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am
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You must have been going round the UK with your eyes closed.
Did you not shop at Tesco's, bank with Barclay's or NatWest, use the Post Office, watch Channel 4, or read a newspaper? The UK is a hotbed of proprietary corporate faces.

Thomas Binder's picture
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Joined: 13 Jan 2006 - 9:04am
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I'd like to have a look at a derivative of Arial ;)

Patricia Fabricant's picture
Joined: 23 Mar 2004 - 9:40am
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Avenir is getting a LOT of play nowadays, see Cingular for example.

Gotham too.

Sans is definitely easier to read on the web.

Patricio Juarez's picture
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Joined: 17 Jan 2006 - 12:30pm
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Helvetica is immortal

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Helvetica is undead.

Ken, I do agree that there's too much sans over here (and in general too much uniformity) not least as a result of ignorance concerning readability. But I'm surprised -in a good way- that you say Malaysia is better in that respect. Do you mean in Latin-alphabet usage, or Jawi?

BTW, try to ignore those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture.

hhp

Ken Kamal's picture
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Joined: 20 Mar 2006 - 8:52pm
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Nick, thought you raised some excellent examples of corporate typefaces, and I do concede Real Newspapers have retained their independence even when switching to smaller formats which is excellent - although, I believe this is an attempt to disassociate from tabloids as much as anything. :)

However, I think the point I make about the use of Sans Serif is still valid when referring to any recent rebranding or development in the UK. Look at M&S, Abbey (admittedly they dropped that disastrous logo and went back to Serif), o2, or anything done by Pentagram (not to slur them either, although I do question that "proprietary" font for the John Lewis logo). Looking at the buntings hiding building sites really did hone the point that Helvetica is undead.

I would have loved to see fonts like Baskerville used in more contemporary contexts, but apart from historic tourist attractions and a lone Ogilvy and Mather business card, it seemed to be thin on the ground.

hhp, I think it impacted on me in Malaysia when I returned to a world of Jawi, Arabic, Chinese text and calligraphy, Sanskrit and so forth. Corporate Identities often have more than one language or typeface (sometimes three or four), and even in application of the Latin alphabet Serif fonts are well entrenched here.

Unfortunately, this is not true of English newspapers in Malaysia, where Sans Serif completely dominates and everything looks and reads like the Sun (without the nudity). Kerning is also non existent here (although, admittedly, I have been guilty of this cardinal sin too)

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Multi-script milieus rule.

hhp

Ken Kamal's picture
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Joined: 20 Mar 2006 - 8:52pm
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Excuse my ignorance, but off-topic a bit, what is multi-script milieus?

Nick Shinn's picture
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Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am
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Ken, I actually agree with you for the most part, and have written several articles about the dominance of a few sans faces, and tried to explain it. Some of these articles (eg The Face of Uniformity) are on my website, shinntype.com.

There's also a photo-essay I did on Helvetica in the UK:
http://typographi.com/001009.php

I just thought your saying "completed limited..." was an overstatement, especially when I'm comparing Canada with the UK, and Canada doesn't have that large dimension of exciting proprietary typefaces that there are in the UK. Notwithstanding M&S!

Ken Kamal's picture
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Joined: 20 Mar 2006 - 8:52pm
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Love that Helvetica photo essay, especially the crumpled page from the Guardian. I completely forgot about those warnings on the cigarette packets!

Nick Shinn's picture
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Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am
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those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture.

Hrant, try to move beyond seeing everything through a chauvinist filter.
Can you polease give us a break from your banal generalizations of "culture" and consider real people? What I "won't tolerate" (although that's your usual exaggerated inflamatory interpretation) is that Ken didn't acknowlede the highly visible work of type designers. It's not all doom and gloom, and we should big up the positive things.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Milieu is just a fancy word for environment. Multi-script is like Malaysia,
or Beirut, or Bangkok, or LA, where I recently got a to-go cappuccino* from
a Vietnamese-owned coffee shop and the heat sleeve was a cell phone ad... in
Armenian! I hadn't been that proud of this city for a while.

* Mea culpa. :-/

> we should big up the positive things.

Yeah, especially Western ones.

Your reaction (maybe you should go back and read it) was
textbook, for your demographic. Just once, surprise me.

hhp

paul d hunt's picture
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Joined: 5 May 2005 - 8:44pm
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alright hrant, tone it down, please. no need to take a personal tone with nick.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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But of course "clueless idiot" and "Did I mention education, experience,
and expertise? Such a darn shame you’d never qualify." are just fine.

I know, I know, the backstage-whiny wheel gets the grease.

hhp

William Berkson's picture
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Joined: 26 Feb 2003 - 11:00am
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Hrant, you started the personal assault in this thread with your comment "try to ignore those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture."

I don't know how others feel, but I would appreciate it if you would stop needling Nick. I like to read both his posts and yours, but the personal invective between you two is really unpleasant.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Coming from an entirely even-handed source.

And of course "You must have been going round the UK with your eyes closed." was just fine too, compared to the downright villainous "try to ignore those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture." When you consider that Ken obviously had his eyes open, which part of him is in fact being accused of being closed, exactly?

Look hard in your collective mirror guys.

hhp

William Berkson's picture
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Joined: 26 Feb 2003 - 11:00am
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Hrant, Nick being tactless does not justify your being insulting--especially when the target of the criticism (not you) handled it graciously. If you could both dial it back, I--and I suspect a lot of others--would be relieved.

Thierry Blancpain's picture
Joined: 15 May 2005 - 4:30am
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yes, and that comes from someone who isnt very active here.

even just reading you two going on and on and on and on about your personal problems is tiring and often lets me stop reading a thread.