Sans Serifs - What're the differences

AndrewSipe's picture

This might be a redundant question, but what the defining differences betweens sans serifs?

Meaning, what makes a Humanistic Sans different from a Grotesque Sans or a Gothic Sans? Are there any other types of Sans?

If this has been answered before, my apologies, I wasn't really sure how to search for an answer to this question.

malbright's picture

I dearly love the explanations in The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. A book I find myself reading over and over again.

Buy it. You'll be thrilled:

AndrewSipe's picture

Where at in the book are these defined?

ebensorkin's picture

These aren't going to get you far in terms of setting up or reifying style distinctions* and they may be possibly too obvious; but they certainly are a potentially important points of difference when choosing a font:

- degree of Historical Resonance

- greater or lesser comprehensiveness of glyph support ( all or partial Latin A, Latin B, Greek, Cyrillic, etc )

- Italic vs. Sloped Roman or Other

- availability of Number models: Old style, Lining, Tabular, Hybrid etc.

- range of weights

- Capital support: ( Small caps, All Caps)

- Availability of pt size or use specific design ( display vs text vs small text - that sort of thing )

- suitability ( or lack suitability ) to set text regardless of style label ( see Haas Unica vs. Helvetica or Arial ) rather than just titles or pull quotes etc.

- suitability for a given type of reproduction: paper type, kind of printing, screen use etc.

- contextual, language specific, or other substitutions if it's Opentype

- degree to which Notan seems to play a role in the design

* The style distinctions which you are looking into are somewhat soft anyway...

Also, there have been threads on Typophile which dissected the notion of the 'Humanist'. If you do a site search of typophile on google you may find useful comments that way.

blank's picture

Grotesque sans faces are the original sans faces. The strokes of these faces often appear close to being “Mono-width”, that is to say lacking tapers. This is not to say that there are no tapers, just that the tapers do not have the sort of personality in a humanist sans. These typefaces speak to mechanisation of production and the removal of elements considered extraneous.

Neo-grotesques further the mechanical nature of the grotesque, stripping away all possible personality to create a neutral typeface that allows the content to stand out. Helvetica and Univers are the kings in this category.

A humanist sans face is a sans face based on handwriting. These faces feature the subtlety of letters crafted by a calligrapher. Many people consider humanist faces to have more personality and human warmth than grotesque or geometric sans faces.

Geometric sans faces are sans faces constructed from basic shapes. They may be purely geometric and mono-width or carefully and technically tapered and tweaked in the manner of a grotesque. Kabel is of the former, Futura the latter.

There are also new sans categories appearing. Typefaces like Gotham and Neutraface are of some new category of vernacular sans types, based on letters used or created by people other than type designers. Work such as Erik Spiekermann’s typefaces—Officina, Meta, and Unit (with credit to Christian Schwarz)—have combined features of grotesques, neo-grotesques, and humanist types to spawn a new hybrid sans category.

Try picking up Will Hill’s The Complete Typographer or Revival of the Fittest for more details.

AndrewSipe's picture

Excellent James, well explained and very concise. I've heard the terminology tossed around, but never had the knowledge to understand the differences. Now I do. Thanks.

eliason's picture

There are also new sans categories appearing. Typefaces like Gotham and Neutraface are of some new category of vernacular sans types, based on letters used or created by people other than type designers.

It may be tricky to argue that distinction. James Mosley has demonstrated: "As for the Caslon ‘Egyptian’ type of 1816, or maybe a bit earlier, which was certainly the first sanserif printing type to be sold commercially, it was not as isolated or as novel as people sometimes make out. By that date Egyptians, or sanserifs, were everywhere, in books and engravings and lithographs, and on buildings and sculpture, and as I’ve said, even on maps." And Gill Sans started as letters for bookshop signage.

(Sorry for nitpicking at your thorough and helpful answer to the original post!)

blank's picture

I really wouldn’t categorize the earliest sans typefaces as grotesques. They fit more into a proto-grotesque category, overlapping nineteenth century jobbing types, existing handwritten and carved letters, and painted signage. To me the grotesque category solidifies much later, when punchcutters had adapted the designs to the letterpress after several generations of type.

I see the same happening now with these new faces. At some point designers whose ideas about what a sans face should be are influenced more by the fonts Gotham and Neutraface than by the vernacular forms that inspired them will produce the next generation. We can see this happening with typefaces influenced ny, or in what appears to be the case with Unit directly descended from, Meta.

As an analogy, there are typefaces that straddle genres like the work of Beethoven. It starts out as classical, softens up and starts throwing in new ideas to become something else, and eventually becomes the foundation for the romantic movement in music.

Nick Shinn's picture

Here's something I wrote on this in 2000, Andrew.
Interesting to see how my theories hold up (or not).
Hip 2B square

blank's picture

Nick, relating the boat conversation from Ghost in the Shell to developments in late 1990s type design is absolutely great. And while current retro-nostalgia trends aren’t bringing square types to the forefront, there are plenty of them out there waiting in the wings, and I suspect that we’ll see them start making a comeback along with the wave of optimism that will hopefully hit much of the world at around noon on January 20, 2009.

Thanks for posting that great piece.

William Berkson's picture

>A humanist sans face is a sans face based on handwriting.

This is misleading. The proportions and modulation of humanist sans are, as Nick says in his piece, based on old style serif printers typefaces, with the serifs taken away. These typefaces in turn are based on hand writing, but a very special, formal hand: the revived Carolingian Miniscule with roman caps. The modulation of line in old style type is has many differences from the handwriting that it is based on.

Nick Shinn's picture

Previous to specific cultural uses, such as the definition of a lettera umanistica, the basic meaning of humanism contrasted man with God. It seems to me that in the context here it visually contrasts man with machine, machine being represented by the letterpress type forms of grotesque and geometric. In that sense, any hand written or hand drawn sans serif may be considered humanist. Comic Sans, for instance. Or consider Eras -- not directly based on the old style, but with strongly organic, chirographic qualities.

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