dot-font: The Human Side of Sans Serif

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dot-font was a collection of short articles written by editor and typographer John D. Barry (the former editor and publisher of the typographic journal U&lc) for CreativePro.  If you’d like to read more from this series, click here.

Eventually, John gathered a selection of these articles into two books, dot-font: Talking About Design and dot-font: Talking About Fonts, which are available free to download here.  You can find more from John at his website,

When a designer wants a humanist sans-serif typeface today, the choice is wide. As I said in my last column, “Not Your Father’s Sans Serif,” there has been an explosion of sans serifs that are based on humanist handwriting and traditional text typefaces, rather than on strict geometry or on clunky 19th-century industrial forms. Where once the choices were limited to Optima, Gill Sans, Frutiger, and the ground-breaking Syntax, now there are so many entries in the “humanist sans” sweepstakes that the options are bewildering.

These are typefaces to be read. They may be drawn with only one thickness of line (although not all of them are) so that they stand foursquare on the page in the way that a modulated serif text face usually does not, and they may be stripped of serifs so that they look streamlined and somehow modern, but they have the forms we’re used to in a typeface for reading. They fit together well—the best ones, anyway—and they flow along the line of text. Most of them have true italics, not just slanted versions of the roman letters, and the best include old-style figures and small caps, which are attributes of a text face.

A Flowering of Sans Serifs

It’s hard to know where to draw the line, between humanist sans serifs and other sans serifs that simply look good in text. After all, Futura was intended as a text face, and when it’s spaced carefully it can look quite classical. But the typefaces I’m going to mention here are all relatively recent, and all firmly in the mold of the humanist sans. This is by no means an exhaustive list; it should, however, be a useful one.

One of the most readable sans serif typefaces is TheSans, the sans serif branch of the Thesis family, designed by Luc(as) de Groot. Thesis was originally released by FontShop, but the licensing rights reverted to de Groot and he now sells it directly, and licenses it to other font vendors. I first saw it used in the daily “newspaper” at one of the AtypI conferences, where it worked beautifully in narrow, unjustified columns. Since TheSans is somewhat narrow itself, it seems happiest in narrow columns, where it’s most readable; in longer lines, although it still looks great, it becomes a little harder to read, requiring a little more effort. Its off-center alignment, in both roman and italic, reflects traditional letter forms and makes it particularly readable. In addition, when designing the fonts, de Groot took great care in how the letters fit together, and gave them a generously loose fit. The large number of alternate letters and special characters that de Groot has put into the character set also helps make it a good tool for setting text.

A detail of some text set in TheSans Semi Light and Semi Light Italic.

My personal favorite is FF Scala Sans, designed by Martin Majoor to complement his serif typeface, FF Scala. When I first saw samples of the unreleased typeface, I thought they must be just rough sketches; they looked so skeletal. But those were the final letterforms. They are skeletal—or perhaps elemental would be a better word—but they’ve got good bones. The letters are wide and spacious, the x-height is not too great, the curves are somehow both expansive and sharp, almost angular—just like Scala. In fact, since the regular weight of Scala is a somewhat light typeface, Scala Sans is in a way the more readable of the two in text. Because of its stark character, it’s not right for every text situation, but it can function as a text typeface very well indeed. And its spaciousness works better in long lines than the narrow TheSans.

The same text set in FF Scala Sans, roman and italic, at the same point size and leading as the TheSans example.

Adobe’s Myriad, which was developed quite deliberately to be neutral in appearance, was designed collaboratively by Carol Twombly and Robert Slimbach. The roman looks a bit like Frutiger, though unlike Frutiger (at least until the arrival of Linotype Frutiger Next, a recent reworking of the family) Myriad has a true italic. The forms are round and simple, as befits a “neutral” sans, but they are firmly based on humanist letterforms; this gives them a readability beyond what the face’s bland character might suggest. Like all of these sans serif faces in text, Myriad should not be set with the letterspacing too tight.

Text set in Myriad Regular, roman and italic.

Stalking the Wild Helvetica

Erik Spiekermann’s FF Meta, and its many variants and spinoffs, didn’t start off specifically to be a humanist sans serif; it started off to be simply legible, and the use of upright humanist letterforms was the way to achieve legibility. Meta is full of little details that take it away from the rigid, such as the flip to the top of the straight stroke in lowercase n and the varying angles at which the strokes are cut off. It’s lively in a way that Helvetica is not. Meta is more typographic and less calligraphic than some of the more recent humanist sans serifs, but anyone looking at the lowercase g can see that this is meant to function as, among other things, a text face. I would have no hesitation about designing a book using Meta for the text type, if it had the right look and feel for the subject and the author.

Our familiar text set in FF Meta (roman only, although there is a true italic).

ITC Stone Sans, originally designed for Adobe by Sumner Stone, combines fairly round bodies with angular, stick-like arms, in a dance across the page that is inviting and readable in short passages; it may be a little too lively for quiet reading of a novel, say, but that liveliness makes it work in shorter texts. (The varying thicks and thins in the heavier weights add to the face’s sparkle.) I often wish that somehow the timing could have worked out so that Stone Sans was the generic sans serif installed in the original Laserwriters instead of Helvetica; what an easier time we would all have had over the past decade and a half, in reading what comes out of office printers! (More realistically, perhaps, Charles Bigelow’s earlier Lucida Sans, one of the first typefaces designed for low resolution, using uncompromisingly humanist letterforms, would have made a good substitute. There’s a definite resemblance between Lucida Sans and Stone Sans, to my eye. There is also some echo of this in Monotype’s Ocean Sans, designed by Ong Chong Wah, especially in its lowercase a.)

The text in Stone Sans roman and italic.

The Dutch Connection

Fred Smeijers, who designed a very old-looking serif text face that is in fact purely digital in its inspiration and execution, FF Quadraat, later gave it a sans serif companion, FF Quadraat Sans, which Smeijers described as “not just humanist but very humanist, and quite a character among the sanses.” Like Quadraat, Quadraat Sans is narrow and a little spiky; in a block of text, it has less of the even color of most sans serifs.

One last time, the same text set in FF Quadraat Sans, and its unusually narrow, upright italic.

Michael Abbink’s FF Kievit is another face designed to be smooth and neutral, but with a strong humanist basis. Kievit fits in the same quadrant of the typographic spectrum as Meta, but it has a different feel. (You may have noticed a certain preponderance of typefaces from FontShop in this discussion. That’s because FontShop has been in the forefront of developing and promoting humanist sans serifs, starting with Meta and continuing especially with typefaces from some of the young and once-young Dutch type designers who have investigated the humanist tradition.)

In a slightly different vein would be FF Profile, by Martin Wenzel, which I wrote abut in an earlier column, and Productus, by Petr van Blokland (the latter released by Font Bureau). Frank E. Blokland’s DTL Haarlemmer Sans (from Dutch Type Library) takes the forms of Jan van Krimpen’s 1938 serif face Haarlemmer, which Blokland digitized in the 1990s, and turns them into a sans serif companion—something that van Krimpen himself was the first to do, though with another of his typefaces (Romulus). Jeremy Tankard’s Shaker has some odd forms, like the u without a tail, but there’s no doubt that it’s humanist in inspiration and looks lively in text.

Unexpectedly Familiar

Perhaps the most amusing example of a humanist sans serif typeface would be Claude Sans, designed in 1988-90 by Alan Meeks for Letraset. It is quite simply a monoline, sans serif version of Claude Garamond’s 16th-century French type—or rather, of the revivals based on Jean Jannon’s 17th-century interpretation. Anyone who has used Monotype Garamond or Linotype’s Garamond #3 will recognize the letterforms, and laugh. Claude Sans isn’t a serious text face, but in small amounts, in the right circumstances, it becomes a witty commentary on serif vs. sans.

The wonderfully peculiar Claude Sans, set the same as the other samples.

The list goes on and on. Start scanning a catalog of new fonts with this criterion in mind, and you’ll see innumerable examples. More to the point, try them out. Some of them won’t work in running text, or not in the particular text you’re trying to design, but some will. Readability isn’t just a matter of serifs. Some very talented type designers have given us a wealth of new tools to work with; let’s put them to use.

John D. Berry is a typographer, book designer, design writer, editor, and typographic consultant. He is a former President of ATypI, and he is the founder and director of the Scripta Typographic Institute.
  • envoyemail says:

    I read your post regarding typography for brochures:, where you seemed to indicate best to use a serif font.

    But then in this post you seem to say okay to use a font like Myriad (which is what our designer initially selected for our one-page sell sheet).

    If you had to choose between Myriad or a serif like Georgia, what would be your gut choice? If possible, maybe you could look at our proposed brochure and provide feedback? thanks, JOsh

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