Technical Terms: Serif and Sans-Serif

Most fonts can either be called Serif or Sans-Serif fonts. The difference is that Serif fonts have extended strokes at the ends and corners whereas Sans-Serif fonts do not. The use of this term predates computers, and the existence of serifs even predates modern printing. Today it is useful to know the difference when choosing a font for a document or graphic element.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: Technical Terms: Serif and Sans-Serif.

So let's take a look at a term that some computers users know very, very well but others may just have heard of but don't really know what it means. The term is Serif and sometimes we also use the term Sans-serif. So what does serif mean? Well, serif refers to fonts. Fonts are the different styles of lettering that you can have on your computer and interfaces when you're writing and webpages. Every time you use a piece of text it's rendered in a font. Those fonts can be serif or sans-serif or sometimes special things like symbols or display types or things like that. But most of the fonts that you read are either serif or sans-serif.

So here's an example of what a serif font looks like. This is Times, that's the name of the font, and you can see here it's the word MacMost written in serif font. So to see the difference here's MacMost written in Helvetica which is sans-serif font. What's the difference? Well the difference is how the corners and the lines end. When you see these special ends there in the M's and also in the S here. You'll also commonly see it in capital T's and lots of different letters, these little flares there are the end are the serif's. So these are called serif fonts.

Sans-serif is simply without serifs. Sans is French for not or without. So you have sans-serif and serif fonts. What's the purpose of the serifs? Well, it goes back before computers when these fonts were actually used in printing, you know, going back to the early days of printing and even stone carving and writing before then. Some people say that having serifs makes text easier to read. It creates kind of these lines that help your eyes flow. I've heard that. I've heard lots of other reasoning behind it. I'm no expert here in the design of fonts but it seems that a lot of times you see large bodies of text written in serif fonts and then things like headlines and titles and smaller pieces of text written in sans-serif fonts. Although I think fonts today, particularly sans-serif fonts, are clear enough that a lot of times they're used for large bodies of text as well.

Now here's an example of looking through a list, you know choosing a list in Pages, Numbers, or Keynote. One of the things that you won't find, is you won't find an indicator of whether or not a font is serif or sans-serif. It's something people talk about but you won't be able to say just show me the serif fonts, or just show me the sans-serif fonts.

Sometimes you can get clues of them. Obviously here you can see that some are serif and some are sans-serif. But sometimes sans-serif is referred to as gothic. You find this reflected in the names of the fonts. For instance, the font Century has regular century which you can see there is a serif font and Century Gothic which is a sans-serif font. So in all cases, at least in all cases I've ever seen, if the word gothic is in the name of the font it means it's a sans-serif version of that font. But then there are fonts that don't have the word gothic at all that are sans-serif and others that are serif.

So you really have to go and take a look at the font itself to tell which one it is. In most cases, for typical users, it doesn't matter which one you choose. But it is useful to know what a font is, whether it's serif or sans-serif, or if somebody tells you to maybe use a serif font instead of the one you're using or a sans-serif font instead of the one you're using, that you know what it is that they're referring to.

Comments: 4 Responses to “Technical Terms: Serif and Sans-Serif”

    Phyllis Steele
    9 months ago

    I’m loving your “Technical Terms” videos. Clear explanations that make it easy to add to my knowledge base. Keep them coming!

    9 months ago

    Back at you. The number one has a hook in it. Why? Is there a sans serif number one? I actually know the answer to this one. Does the Mac guru?

    9 months ago

    One of the Fonts that will save you ink is Ecofont Vera Sans. It is a sans-serif font and has holes that only show up when it is used in a large pt. Otherwise it appears just like a sans-serif font.

    9 months ago

    Norm: Tell us! 😯

Comments Closed.