The History of Linear, Sans Serif Typefaces

It is difficult to evaluate the new sans serif types without the advantage of being able to look back on them through time. Legibility, however, is one criterion we can objectively assess today with considerable certainty. An alphabet which is widely accepted by readers, even when appearing in long passages and in a small point size, is almost guaranteed to become a lasting success. This is the same factor which has determined the selection of roman typefaces which have persisted over the centuries. And the same rules will certainly also apply to present-day sans serif types.
The process of reading can be explained as follows. Every reader has a so-called matrix of letter forms stored within their subconscious. When reading, the perceived characters are compared with those in this matrix and are either readily accepted or rejected as too foreign. As we are confronted with different styles of type everyday, gradually the matrix is expanded and the characters develop flexible contours, but only to a certain degree. Over the centuries, the limits of this range of readability have been rather clearly defined by the similar design elements of all roman type – elements which have reappeared again and again. Consequently, any new sans serif type which strives for optimal legibility will automatically fall into the same patterns (see Fig. 31).
Also here, a comparison with clothing can be very insightful. The inherent structure of a character could be compared with the naked human body which can be clothed in different styles of apparel (see Fig. 32).

Oversimplified basic patterns
As already indicated in illustration 26, new typefaces often try to press all the symbols used in the alphabet into an oversimplified, usually highly geometric mold. Two typical experiments in this direction were Bauhaus and Serpentine. The first of these fonts attempted to use circles and circle segments as the main elements of character design, also forcing the highly important diagonal strokes to adhere to this principle. The latter font applied the rectangle as the basic design pattern; aside from the diagonals, all characters followed this pattern and the arc was completely banned from the inventory of forms.

Without serifs
The absence of serifs in general also has an influence on legibility. Often the serifs are the main elements of similarity between various forms of type. Since these elements always appear at the same points on a letter, they serve as an important recognition aid. For instance, the roman u is not simply an upside-down n as readers are not accustomed to seeing serifs protruding to the upper right on a lowercase letter (see Fig. 33 top). Exceptions to this rule can be found in lowercase letters which have maintained the forms of their capital counterparts either partially (k, y) or completely (v, w, x).
Lacking these nuances, the more rudimentary sans serif characters require a more distinct and marked form. Serifs help connect individual letters to form a complete word; without them, a far more subtle and slightly condensed layout becomes necessary (see Fig. 33 below).

The reading test
In closing, it should once more be emphasized that all observations discussed here must be understood within the context of typeface and text. To demonstrate the discussed principles, 6 blocks of text written in various sans serif fonts have been placed next to each other for comparison (34). As a reader you are now invited to form your own opinion. As you read the individual texts take note of your readiness to continue reading but also any feelings of frustration. Human feelings are highly unpredictable. For this reason, longer passages of text should not appear too peculiar and thereby provoke a feeling of resistance in the reader – for the real purpose of a font is nothing more or less than to be a quiet conveyor of human thoughts.

Adrian Frutiger

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