How much time do you spend fretting about which typeface to use for your projects?
As the discussion rages on the superiority of serif to sans serif typefaces or vice versa, designers can understandably become overwhelmed, second-guessing every choice.
Researchers at Purdue University claim there’s no real difference in the readability between serif and sans serif fonts in print. However, with electronics, sans-serif is a little easier to read, especially in smaller sizes.
There’s no hard and fast rule for every situation. However, we’re here to help with a few key guidelines that should help frame your typeface decision-making process.
What’s the Difference Between Serif and Sans Serif?
Above, the serif (left) and sans serif (right) versions of the Legacy font illustrate the differences in the glyphs.
Serif typefaces are the traditional norm, ubiquitous in U.S. print, while sans serif typefaces — arguably ancient — have risen to contemporary popularity through their use across the web and, more recently, mobile environments.
The arguments for each usually center around legibility, as many claim serif typefaces are superior due to how the serif strokes lead your eye in a natural horizontal motion while the greater verticality of sans serif typefaces work against your eye’s natural movement.
However, the greatest contributing factors to legibility depend on the particular characteristics of a typeface. The variety across traits like stroke width and x-height within the same type family is so great that it overshadows the impact of a serif. There’s no denying a serif is significant — just less so than other factors.
When to Use Serif and Sans Serif
Not interested in taking sides? Let’s get to the facts on how to use these serifs.
- Sans serif fonts handle reduction better. The more ornate the serifs, the more their legibility deteriorates as the font becomes smaller.
- The simplified shapes of sans serif glyphs make them easier to learn, often a preferable choice for children or beginner readers.
- While they can be harder to learn, serif fonts are easier to recognize given that each glyph has more distinctive features.
- Serif fonts like contrasting colors. The smaller the difference between font and background color, the more difficult it is to make out the fine strokes of serifs — which is why they are best used with bold, contrasting colors.
- With their relative lack of ornamentation, sans serif fonts tend to complement a serif font they are paired with by taking on stylistic characteristics of their more elaborate companion. This often makes them more flexible in application.
Understanding those traits on a fundamental level can explain why certain mediums consistently benefit from one or the other type family:
- Sans serif fonts tend to be preferable for online content and mobile applications
- Serif fonts, with their easily identifiable characters, work well for print. Print’s DPI resolution is higher than the typical computer monitor, so it renders fine details well.
- Serif fonts often have a ‘louder’ presence — this makes them well-suited for headlines and stylistic accents.
- This is not an absolute rule, however — factors like whitespace and arrangement can lend the minimalism of sans serif typefaces an equal impact. Apple is well known for this approach.
The choice between the two families is not formulaic. The reality is that the style, purpose, mood and arrangement of a project will dictate the decision — more so than the properties of the typeface family itself.
Traditional advice says not to mix serif and sans serif fonts. In the online world, however — and even in print at times — combining the two typefaces works.
If you do decide to mix, stick to one for the headlines and another for the body. It will look unbalanced to have a serif and sans serif heading hierarchy. If you’re trying to convey a mismatched quality, however, throw that rule out the window.
Examples of Serifs and Sans Serifs
To get a feel for the difference in the two fonts, it’s best to look at them side-by-side. You will instantly see that serifs are much more formal looking.
Examples of serifs include:
- Times New Roman
Within each type, there are many options and styles. You’ll find both serif and sans serif with tall signatures, wide letters or other unique features. You’ll even discover hybrid fonts. For example, say the typeface is sans serif, but some letters have a serif feature.
Understand the Personality of Font Families
Different fonts evoke different emotions. A serif font has a traditional and formal look. On the flipside, a sans serif font is seen as modern — though it’s been around for centuries.
Use serif for:
- Serious situations, such as an online memorial tribute
- Headers on reliable websites, such as those for banks and schools
- Formal print invitations, such as those for fundraisers and weddings
Use sans serif for:
- Small print that will appear on screens, because it’s easier to read on electronics
- Fun and modern events, such as a children’s fair at the school or an online birthday e-vite
- Most body text on websites and apps, as serif feet are difficult to read on electronics and strain eyes
The key to finding the perfect font family is understanding the best times to use serif and sans serif. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to break the rules if you need to.
What Your Font Choice Says About Your Brand
Think through the message you want to send about your company. Branding is more than the words you say. It’s about the images you use, the color psychology of your aesthetic and the voice your fonts evoke. Ideally, everything works together to create a strong impression.
Take a step back and look at your business through the eyes of an outsider. Is your firm traditional or modern? Even if you’re a new company, you may have traditional values. For example, a bakery that makes cookies, pies and cakes by hand. The age of your company has nothing to do with the type of font you choose.
Gather input from employees and current customers. How do they see you and the company? Once you’ve narrowed your choices, conduct split testing or run focus groups to see which font serves your audience best. You may be surprised by the results. For example, you may believe your sans serif logo is a staple of the brand. Others may think it’s time for an update.
If all this seems like a bit too much to take in, the visualization below can provide a helpful reference as you navigate the typographical realm. After all, what designer doesn’t love an elegant infographic?
For more information about fonts and when to use specific ones, check out The Font Series: A Font Guide with Tips, Facts, and the Origins.
This article was originally published on 12/09/2015 and updated on 12/31/2019.