Serif vs. Sans Serif Fonts: When and How to Use Them
Learn the characteristics and uses of popular fonts in serif and sans serif typography—and how they’re applied in branding.
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Learn the difference in use between serif and sans serif fonts, what do they say about your brand and how to make the correct font choice for your design projects.
As a non-designer, you probably don’t spend too much time analyzing and thinking about typography. But any graphic designer will tell you that a font makes a big difference when it comes to the quality and impression a design leaves.
Different typefaces bring different qualities to the table, and you need to decide on a font that bodes well with the brand image you want to achieve but also be contemporary and in line with the current trends.
In your branding efforts, there is a big chance you’ll either go for a serif, or sans serif font. Most subcategories fall under these two basic types of fonts, and in this article, we’ll show you what you should base your choice on and what these typographies mean for your brand.
What is the difference between serif fonts and sans serif fonts?
Technically, the only difference between serif and sans serif fonts is that visually, serif types have an extra decorative stroke at the endings of lines in the lettering and the so-called feet of letters.
Sans serif, as that “sans” says, don’t have extra swooshes and ornamental endings.
But, from an aesthetic standpoint, the difference is much deeper than this practical distinction we make between these two types of fonts. Designers and branding gurus know that different fonts have different personalities, and offer a unique message and character to the design.
Why is choosing the right font important?
In graphic design, the final look needs to be well aligned with the branding identity, messaging, industry and even current policies of the brand. The image audiences see forms a subconscious picture in their head that a company is friendly, youthful, corporate, trustworthy, traditional… Anything the company itself wants to position as and showcase, a graphic designer will know how to translate into visual branding.
Designers use fonts, but also colors, shapes, imagery, and combined with the right messaging, branding and marketing are crucial to the market success of a brand.
Here are some of the reasons why finding the right font is extremely important.
When buyers and audiences first discover a brand, the first thing they see is the logo, colors and other branding elements. They form an impression based on these assets, and then, willingly or not, decide whether to trust the brand enough to make a purchase.
Typography is one of the most crucial elements that make a difference in this decision. Here’s a simple example: Vogue, the most famous fashion magazine in the world, uses a logotype, i.e. a typographic logo consisting of only the brand name. It looks like this:
The Didone font you see in this logo is serif typography that shows class, elegance, tradition and longevity.
What would happen if we were to use, let’s say, a sans serif modern typeface that is mostly used for body text?
When the logotype is in the Roboto font or a similar font family, the impression is immediately different. It looks like a lighter, more casual brand identity, that one wouldn’t take seriously and definitely wouldn’t think is an established name in the fashion industry.
This might be a more practical reason, but the font you use needs to be easier to read. Sometimes, decorative or script fonts that compromise the legibility a bit are used for aesthetic purposes, but mostly as a secondary font. The font you choose as your primary font needs to check the readability mark too.
Here is the Facebook logo in its original look.
Now, here is Facebook in the Goldmarie font. Even a name as memorable as this would fly over your head if you can’t read it well.
All the aforementioned reasons help form the right first impression. An illegible, funny or completely misleading typography will make a person judge your brand wrongly.
Don’t believe me? I’ll use the example of this planet’s most hated typeface—Comic Sans. It is indeed comical and somewhat of a meme at this point. People use it ironically or not, but the impression it leaves is always the same: Comic Sans means bad design.
Here are a few examples of world-known logos, and how they would look if Comic Sans was used instead of the font of choice. Would you take any of these brands seriously? What would your first impression be?
Now that I’ve proved my point that typography matters, let’s go over the characteristics and spirit of serif and sans serif fonts.
Serif typeface characteristics and notable serif fonts
Serif fonts are more traditional and classic since they are the first kind of typography that dates back to the 18th century, when old style typography started being used in print. Companies who use them try to exude a sense of refinement, tradition and respectability as the core characteristics of their brands.
A subcategory of serif typography, called slab serif, is also quite popular in logo design. It is characterized by heavier feet on the lettering, and thicker, block-like serifs. The robustness of these letters exudes a bold, noticeable and confident branding style.
Serif fonts, as well as slab serifs, are used by a wide array of companies in plenty of industries, from fashion to technology.
Some of the most notable serif fonts that are widely used both in graphic design and in everyday life are Times New Roman, Baskerville, Garamond, Georgia, Bodoni, Bookman Old Style, and many others.
Notable slab serifs, on the other hand, are Serifa, Egyptian Slate, Rockwell, Glypha, Memphis, ITC Lubalin Graph, etc.
Sans serif typeface characteristics and notable sans serif fonts
The sans serif font style is showing that your brand is approachable and modern, but still trustworthy and serious. Sans serif fonts are typically clean and perfectly legible because of the lack of extra ligatures and ornaments. The casual and youthful look of sans serif typography makes it a popular choice among tech companies, which is why you’ll see them often in SaaS design.
The lack of extra swooshes also allows for more generous spacing between letters, and more similarity between uppercase and lowercase symbols.
Other industries, such as retail, appliance and fashion, also often use sans serif fonts.
Notable sans serif fonts include Arial, Helvetica, Futura, Verdana, Calibri, Franklin Gothic, and plenty of other typefaces.
Other typography styles
Cramming everything in just a serif or sans serif category is hard because there are other styles that are technically part of these bigger groups, but are unique and noticeable for a different distinguishable feature.
For example, you can find anything from vintage decorative to steampunk fonts, Bauhaus-inspired geometric fonts and lavish elegant typography with long ligatures. All of them, technically, can be either serif or sans serif.
A category that doesn’t fall under either of them, is script fonts, that mimic handwriting and calligraphy styles. They look more spontaneous and are most similar to cursive lettering, so the rules of serifs and sans serifs don’t apply to them.
So… which one is better for you?
In reality, only you can truly know that. Plenty of businesses use unconventional fonts, but for their brand mission and history, it works well. Think of Instagram’s flowy and somewhat childish script font. It’s not exactly a classy serif, but for a youthful social network, it hits the target.
Make a blueprint and mood board of what your brand stands for and what are the core beliefs that set it apart from competitors. Do you want to position yourself as a friendly, contemporary brand? Or a traditional, respected and strong corporation? Focus on the characteristics of different typographies that we’ve mentioned, and you’ll find a logo font and secondary typography that perfectly suits your style.
Journalist turned content writer. Based in North Macedonia, aiming to be a digital nomad. Always loved to write, and found my perfect job writing about graphic design, art and creativity. A self-proclaimed film connoisseur, cook and nerd in disguise.