What is the difference between these fonts, and what are some typical examples of why one might be used over another?
How are Serif and Sans-serif fonts different, and when should one use one over the other?
1Look here.– Mateen UlhaqJan 7, 2011 at 5:15
See also: “Serifs improve fast, easy readability for long text” - myth or truth?.– Wrzlprmft ♦Jan 13, 2015 at 12:47
Serif Vs Sans Serif
(a picture speaks a thousand words) Read @Calvin's answer for explanation.
4Or a thousand bytes. (56400+GIF_HEADER to be more precise.) Jan 7, 2011 at 5:45
lol gzip components for a substantial reduction in size :P– AtifJan 8, 2011 at 7:24
Serifs are the usually perpendicular projections found on the termini/endpoints in type. For instance, a capital "I" is usually rendered with 2 crossbars. Those are serifs.
Sans-serif just means "without serif." The definition of serif / sans-serif typefaces should be self-explanatory.
Serif typefaces are sometimes referred to as "roman".†
Sans-serif typefaces are, likewise, sometimes referred to as grotesque / grotesk or gothic.†
There are also different types of serif, such as slab serif—also referred to as Egyptian, mechanistic, or square serif—versus bracketed serifs.
Additionally, there are some typefaces with serifs that are still considered sans-serif. Bell Gothic is an example of this. And, lastly, some typefaces have what are called petit-serifs ("small serifs") or semi-serifs.
As Charles Stewart noted in his comment, "roman" is also used to refer to the upright straight-lined typestyle reminiscent of classical Roman chiseled type—from which serifs are also derived (and contrasting with blackletter and italic script). "Roman" (by itself) is commonly the base font of a typeface or font family, but there can also be a "bold-roman", "black-roman", as well as "roman-oblique", which is slanted at an angle but maintains the same glyph shapes as the base font.
† These classifications originate from handwriting/calligraphy/script styles in 15-16th century Europe. At the time, you had the long-standing blackletter scripts, but Italian Renaissance humanists, obsessed with Roman antiquity, began spreading much easier to read scripts based on Carolingian minuscule, such as humanist minuscule and a simpler, slightly slanted derivative suited to faster writing. In contrast with these "classical" Roman-inspired scripts, the old blackletters were viewed by Italian humanists as non-classical and barbaric (and associated with the Goths that invaded the Roman Empire), so they were naturally termed gothic, which came to just mean not roman. And the slanted Roman script was later named Italique Hande, or just italic, due to its Italian origin.
3...or semi-serifs.– e100Jan 7, 2011 at 10:44
Roman isn't a synonym for serif: it generally refers to the base font within a full font family, which is serif but is also not bold and not italic. Jan 11, 2011 at 7:34
@Charles: There are 2 uses of the word "roman" in typography, see: desktoppub.about.com/cs/basic/g/roman.htm en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_type Jan 12, 2011 at 13:33
1@Calvin: Good links. 2nd link says "My own personal view is that if an article is well written and interest catching, it is of no consequence what font it is printed in" - I could show some compelling counter-examples, examples of good writing injured by awful typography, drawn from the bookshelf behind me. Long mathematical articles need concentration to read, regardless of the interest of the content and the writing abilities of the author: setting such an article in an uneven typewriter font with an unusual aspect ratio is just such an injury. Jan 13, 2011 at 6:44
1As I mentioned on graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/37501/… there are some fonts which don't have serifs but have variable width strokes in a fashion similar to "Times Roman", and others that have relatively uniform stroke widths but have serifs. The answer to that question suggested "Roman" as a term to distinguish the former from the latter; I can see it being used as a term to describe a common kind of serif typeface, but hardly see it as synonymous with "serif".– supercatJan 21, 2015 at 16:15
atif089's and Calvin Huang's answers illustrate the main differences quite well.
For the usage, my general rule of thumb is:
- Serifs for horizontal-intensive reading. Serifs help the eye to stay on the line while reading, and thus can make reading faster and more effortless.
- Sans-serifs for vertical-intensive scanning. Without the serifs, it is easier to jump from line to line and scan for specific characters/words. Distinct characters are more recognizable because they have less in common (i.e. no serifs).
I'm uncited and these are rough generalizations and rules are sometimes good to be broken. See also a good article on typeface combinations on Smashing Magazine, which illustrates how and when to mix these two (sans-serifs for headings and serifs for body is a classic example).
1What do you think of sans-serif typefaces which use variable stroke widths? That's my personal favorite kind of type face, since I think the variable stroke widths in typefaces like Times New Roman contribute much more to its legibility than do most of the serifs.– supercatJan 21, 2015 at 16:16
What they are has already been explained. I like to use serif fonts for a more classical / traditional design and sans for more modern / contemporary designs. That is, of course, not a hard and fast rule.
For print, in the U.S., body copy is usually set in serif, while in Europe it's set in sans serif, and that readers in the various regions are trained to that.
4Greetings from Finland (Europe). Your answer made me check through household's different newspapers and magazines. Result: all but the comics had a serif body copy. I don't know how it is stated in your reference's citation (Typography 101C: The Role of Typeface Choice in Making Text Readable), but it is outdated, too vague generalization or just plain wrong. Also Wikipedia Sandbox as a reference sounds dubious at best. Jan 7, 2011 at 20:55
I shall stand corrected, then. I do recall reading about this phenomenon years ago, but it could have been the same citation Wikipedia made. Jan 7, 2011 at 22:25
Usage, common (in web) is serif for titles and sans-serif for body text.
I attended a workshop many years ago in which they cited research that showed that when people read Serif fonts printed on paper, they read faster, with better comprehension than reading Sans-serif.
They said the research showed the exact opposite to be true when read on a screen... On a screen, people read faster and with better comprehension when reading Sans-Serif.
Now that the resolution of monitors has drastically improved, the difference may not be as drastic on the screen but I still follow this guideline unless I have compelling reason to ignore it.
1Too bad you can't reference that research.– ScottSep 4, 2015 at 0:19
Exactly. Everyone says the same crap but no one has a single study to back any of it up. Facts/research please. Mar 7, 2016 at 19:37
Sans-serif just means "without serif." The definition of serif / sans-serif typefaces should be self-explanatory. Sans-serifs for vertical-intensive scanning. Without the serifs, it is easier to jump from line to line and scan for specific characters/words. Distinct characters are more recognizable because they have less in common (i.e. no serifs). I'm uncited and these are rough generalizations and rules are sometimes good to be broken. See also a good article on typeface combinations on Smashing Magazine, which illustrates how and when to mix these two (sans-serifs for headings and serifs for body is a classic example
1hi ashamcmurdie, do you have a link to that article?– VincentJan 13, 2015 at 12:17
"sans-serif typefaces should be self-explanatory" So, you're assuming some specifically asking what the difference is finds it "self explanatory"?? Sorry, horrible explanation. It assumes the user already knows the answer when clearly they do not.– ScottJan 13, 2015 at 13:52