The History of Linear, Sans Serif Typefaces

A consistent line of development can be identified in the over 150-year history of sans serif fonts. Just as classic roman typefaces went through numerous changes in appearance, sans serif types experienced many mutations as well. Instead of the perhaps more typical comparison of architecture and typography, what follows is an illustrative comparison between the forms of letters and men’s fashion, covering a span of 250 years.

As a reference point, we’ll begin with the overtly elegant style of the 18th century. Extravagant refinement was evident in both the type and the clothes, clearly indicative of the end of an age (see Fig. 9a).

Before the development of the sans serif types, as a reaction to the exaggerated elegance of the Didot serifs, the powerful slab serifs of the Egyptian style predominated. Men’s fashion at the time also reflected this distinct change (see Fig. 9b).

The emergence of the sans serif types took relatively little time. At the end of the 19th century, type foundries all over the world already had the means to produce sans serif types either with their own matrices or ones which they had acquired. Similar to the typefaces, men’s clothing had also evolved in favor of austere, tight-fitting lines (see Fig. 9c).

The turn of the century brought along art nouveau and with it a romantic influence which can hardly be ignored in either the typefaces or the fashions of the day (see Fig. 9d).

The 1920s saw the rise of direct expression – and an objectivity influenced by science and technology. The first attempts were made to create typefaces with purely geometrical forms. Men’s clothing lost every trace of adornment, beards disappeared completely and hairstyles were reduced to a minimum of simplicity (see Fig. 9e).

As mentioned earlier, the years after World War II saw the rebirth of the grotesque types of the 19th century. They served as models for new alphabets with forms far removed from purely constructionist principles. The use of these more modular type forms seemed easier and better adapted to the spirit of modernity. At the same time as when the Beatles began to triumphantly take the world by storm, the fashion world also experienced a revolution. The "tight jacket" of the traditional suit was discarded for clothes made of burlap and leather. Then blue jeans came from America – a look which spread around the globe, breaking down barriers across every class of society, a fashion equally accessible to women and men (see Fig. 9f).

more ... The sans serif wave Part 1