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Let’s Talk About Type – Sans Serif

I’m going to throw some important words at you that are a must when entering the realm of Sans Serif. And yes, one of the words is Helvetica. But before Helvetica, there was much, much more. What I want you to remember (and impress your graphic design friends later with) is this:

  • Futura
  • Bauhaus
  • Swiss style

Technically speaking, sans serifs appeared much earlier in type history than you would have anticipated. In 1816, William Caslon IV created a sans serif alphabet, called simply Caslon. As one can imagine with all great changes that come in history, it was not wildly popular or readily accepted at first light.

The sans serif trend really boomed in 1920’s and 30’s thanks to something called Bauhaus and Swiss Style. But more on that later…

Here’s a gander at our timeline as of now:


Basics: Sans Serif Characteristics


  1. Little or no variation between thick and thin strokes
  2. No stress in rounded strokes
  3. Lack of serifs
  4. Larger x-height

You can also classify sans serif into these four different families:

  1. Grotesque, early sans-serif designs, such as Caslon and Franklin Gothic.
  2. Neo-grotesque, straight and plain, your most common sans-serif fonts like Bell Centennial, MS Sans Serif, Helvetica, Univers, and Arial.
  3. Humanist, the most calligraphic of the sans-serif typefaces, with some variation in line width and more legibility than other sans-serif fonts. (Calibri, Lucida Grande, Segoe UI, Gill Sans, Myriad, Frutiger, Trebuchet MS, Tahoma, Verdana and Optima).
  4. Geometric, As the name suggests, Geometric sans serif typefaces are based on geometric shapes, near-perfect circles and squares. Geometric sans-serif fonts also have a very modern look and feel and of all the categories, it to be the least useful for body text. (Futura, ITC Avant Garde, Century Gothic, Gotham, or Spartan).

The Battle Between Serif and Sans


Many were afraid the popularity of the sans serif would mean the “death of the serifs,” however, it has been proven that is just not so. Sure, serifs help the eye to stick to a line and thus facilitate reading and naturally were better suited for print work like books and essays with longer paragraphs, but this does not mean they were alienated from other works and uses.

In contrast, with the new demand in marketing for grabbing display type, sans serifs were most often seen in advertising. To this day, sans serif is still the most natural choice for display purposes i.e. in the use of ads, titles, logos, billboards etc.

Though Futura can be labeled as the first gunshot of the popular era of sans serif in type history, another sans showed up on scene from Switzerland in 1957 and became today’s most ubiquitous sans serif known. Helvetica just seems appropriate for everywhere and everything and so, over the years it has begun to pop up everywhere and on everything. Almost becoming a tad overused, and in many instances misused.

Below I’m going to talk about some big movements in the history of graphic design that really ignited the popularity of sans.

Bauhaus Movement

bauhuasBauhaus was a school of art in Germany founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius. The school was open and running from 1919 to 1933. Its main goal was to eventually be a school where all art forms could come together, from crafts, to architecture, fine art, and graphic design. And their mission was to embrace the new modern technologies and follow practicality before attractiveness. Their universal, and quite famous, battle cry was “form follows function.”

Swiss Movement


My favorite progressive and radical movement of all time was one that began with a group of very talented Swiss graphic designers in the early 1900’s, as well. What’s amazing is that this style not only enveloped the world of graphic design but in architecture and culture as well. This style became internationally adopted by the 1960’s and is replicated by artists (including myself) to this day. If you want the Swiss Movement summarized in a nutshell, it was thus:  a pursuit for simplicity.

More so, the Swiss movement is about using minimal elements and relying on typography and content layout rather than on textures and illustrations. Their main tenet was in the belief that typography has so much aesthetic potential on its own, and I can’t help but to agree (obviously as I’ve written 5 articles alone already on the history of it). The other key takeaways from this movement were new ideals in uniformity, geometry, whitespace, grid systems, and structure.

Another movement to come out around this time as well is the De Stijl movement, but that’s a conversation for another day.



Popular Sans Serif


Futura is a gem of a typeface, designed by Paul Renner in 1928, Futura embodies Bauhaus ideology: geometric shapes, lack of any embellishment, and just barely conformative to the historical shapes of letters. It is greatly desired amongst all serious graphic designers for its unique and still a little radical taste.

Completely opposite of Futura, Frutiger, the “anti-geometric” figure, was designed in 1976 with uneven width of strokes (especially in bold variants), non-perpendicular cuts, and slightly bent off tips of strokes (e.g. see the bottom vertical stroke of the letter “d”) All these subtleties were intended to smooth out what could be seen as harsh edges of the generic sans serif design and to improve legibility of characters (as there was no serif to create a line for our eye to follow). The result of this attempt is a relatively warm and friendly-looking typeface—especially when compared to the Helvetica or Futura.

Meta, “the typeface of the nineties” was developed in 1984 by famous German designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann. Spiekermann’s goal was to create a practical typeface that was readable in a wide variety of sizes and conditions. Spiekermann’s own words are that the type was never designed to be trendy, rather it was designed to solve a specific problem of “small type on bad paper,” and young designers seem to connect with its rugged charm.

kellsfontsThe Sans Serif movement continued for several decades with the development of immensely popular designs such as Univers, designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1956, Helvetica, 1957 by Max Meidinger, and Avant Garde, 1970 by Herb Lubalin and Tom Carnase.


Next up: Display and Script (there’s a difference!) or Start from the Beginning of the Series

About the author

Kelly Quigley