Christopher Glover 4 MIN READ

Sans-serif fonts VS serif fonts

Whenever you commission your print or web designer to create some marketing material or a website for your business, you’ll probably find yourself neck-deep in a discussion about which typeface (or font) to use. And more specifically, whether to use a serif font or a sans-serif font.

We’ll explain the terminology in a minute, but choosing a typeface can often be an easy decision if you already have an established brand with comprehensive guidelines that cover typefaces and fonts.

However, if this is a new project, then it’s useful to know the differences between those two types of font – especially if you want to hold your own if you ever find yourself in that discussion with your designer.

Serif fonts

First up, serif fonts. Fonts in this family are recognisable because the letter forms include what are known as serifs. Serifs are those tiny lines and flourishes you can see tailing from the edges of characters, numbers and symbols, and there are a few theories as to how they originated.

One school of thought is that serifs are a legacy from when letters were created with brushstrokes. When coming to the end of a line, brushes tend to flare out a little which creates the extra shape. An alternative theory is that serifs were more functional and were used to neaten the edges of letters when they were carved into stone. But either way, they’re often considered to be easier to read – at least when printed onto paper – than fonts without serifs.

Sans-serif fonts

And that leads us nicely onto sans-serif fonts. As you’ve probably guessed, sans-serif fonts are fonts without serifs. They often look a lot more modern than serif fonts, but their history also dates back to as early as the 5th Century BC and the term ‘sans-serif’ became widely used in the 1830s.

Which is best for my project?

So, while serif fonts have long been the preferred choice for long printed documents like books and manuscripts, the question that you might be asking your designer these days is what type of font works better on screen?

Good question. The generally accepted rule is that sans-serif fonts work better on screen than serif fonts. Why? because modern screens are made up of millions and millions of square pixels (as opposed to really fine printing with ink), and it’s often difficult to reproduce intricate serifs – especially if the individual characters are quite small. Given the square shape of screen pixels, serifs often disappear altogether or are shown a little too big – both of which can make on screen text look messy.

So, in a nutshell, that’s why your designer might suggest a sans-serif font for on screen designs, and a serif font for printed designs.

Better still, you’ll even be able to understand the conversation when it happens, too!

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