The Magical, Surprising History of Serifs
Once viewed as “uncivilized,” sans serif typefaces somehow became the epitome of streamlined efficiency
In 2015, when the online search megacorp Google redesigned its logo—one of the most seen and recognized on the planet—to achieve a cleaner, more “efficient” look, its designers chose to switch from a typeface with serifs to one without.
This change touches upon an argument about aesthetics that has divided typographers for over 200 years. Among designers, the word “serif” itself invites controversy.
Serifs give the eye a curve to hug.
Some historians claim the word originated in 18th century Dutch “schreef” (marks of the pen), while others believe it to be a back-formation from “sanserif.” Serifs were not acknowledged much by designers until they began to be removed and sans serif (from French, sans meaning “without”) typefaces began their ascendancy in the late 19th century. I sometimes wonder if “serif” might be etymologically linked to the Urdu word “sharif,” which means “cultured and refined.”
Physically, serifs originated in the flourishes of the calligrapher’s wrist. In calligraphy, the art of hand-drawn lettering, serifs serve two purposes. They help a writer gain control over mark-making momentum, the arm shifting pressure and angles to form curves and modify the thickness of strokes. Serifs are to a calligrapher what a run-up and follow-through are to a fast bowler in cricket.
Over time, through practice and perfection, what was once mechanical necessity evolved into expressive ornamentation that made writing appear individualistic and intricate. Serifs give the eye a curve to hug. When carved into stone, serifs allow words to appear aligned. Hence, the Victorians used serifs in all of their typefaces, and they were common in Italian Renaissance architecture. They were seen as “Roman.” Today, the names of computerized fonts (Times New Roman, Comic Sans, etc.) and the shape of the letters themselves encapsulates the history of human civilization.