Serif vs. sans serif font. What’s the difference? What kind of message does each send? And what’s the best font choice for your brand? We asked two design experts, Natalie Downey, Senior Designer at Duckpin, and Robyn Young, founder of branding agency robyn young & co to share their insights.
When it comes to fonts, you’ve got lots of choices (Helvetica or Times New Roman? Georgia Bold or Bebas Neue? Or, heaven forbid...Comic Sans?!). But before you can make a choice about what font is the best fit for you, your brand, and your designs, you need to understand the different categories. And while there are a number of font categories out there (like script or graphic), the two most important categories you need to understand to make informed design decisions? Serif and Sans Serif.
So, what is the difference between serif vs. sans serif fonts? What does each category say about your brand? And what kind of designs are the best fit for each?
Let’s take a deep dive into serif vs. sans serif fonts to help you figure out which category is the best fit for you and your designs:
So, first things first: What, exactly, is the difference between serif vs. sans serif fonts?
“As their names suggest, the main difference between these two typefaces is the presence or absence of serifs within the letters,” Natalie Downey, Senior Designer at Duckpin.
“A serif is a decorative line or taper added to the beginning and/or end of a letter’s stem, which creates small horizontal and vertical planes within a word.”
So, in a nutshell, serif fonts have those decorative lines or tapers (also commonly referred to as “tails” or “feet”) while sans serif fonts don’t—hence the “sanes” in their title.
“Without tails, sans-serif fonts are made up of simple, clean lines that are the same width throughout,” says Downey.
Some of the most commonly used serif fonts include Times New Roman, Garamond, Baskerville, Georgia, and Courier New. Some of the most popular sans serif fonts on the black include Arial, Helvetica, Proxima Nova, Futura, and Calibri.
Now that you understand the difference between serif and sans serif fonts, let’s talk about what message each category sends—and why it’s important to make sure the fonts you choose send the right message about your brand.
“A startup tech company and an established law firm most likely don't want to convey the same message through their logo and branding,” says Downey. “This is where the endless variety of fonts come into play.”
If you’re going for a traditional look and feel in your designs, you’re definitely going to want to go the serif route. “Serif fonts have been widely used in books, newspapers, and magazines, which is why they remind us of more classical, formal and sophisticated themes—think of Old English and Roman scripture,” says Robyn Young, founder of branding agency robyn young & co.
Serif fonts are a great choice for brands that want to be seen as trustworthy, established, and reliable. “Because serif typefaces date back to the 18th century, companies that utilize serif fonts are often seen as more established, serious, and traditional,” says Downey. “Consumers are drawn to the traditional look because of the implied heritage and loyalty of the brand.”
Serif fonts are a great choice for more traditional businesses (like law practices, financial firms, or insurance companies) and for more corporate-leaning designs (like marketing brochures or RFPs).
If serif fonts are all about embracing tradition, sans serif fonts are about throwing tradition out the window in favor of modern sophistication. “Sans serif is considered more modern because they are minimal and simplistic and post-date serif fonts,” says Young.
If you want your brand to come across as more youthful and accessible, sans serif fonts can feel much more approachable than their stuffier, more corporate serif counterparts. “When a company chooses a sans-serif font to represent their brand, they are usually trying to communicate a more youthful and modern quality,” says Downey. “The sharp, clean lines of a sans-serif font can also be viewed as more approachable and playful because of its simplicity.”
Serif fonts are the go-to choice for any brand that wants to appear timely and cutting-edge (like startups or tech companies) and for more creative branding designs (like logos or social graphics).
Sans serif fonts are the best choice if you want your brand designs to feel modern, sophisticated, and cutting edge. Capture the sans serif look with these Canva templates: Green Connection Icon Internet Logo, Pastel Modern Abstract Cosmetology Business Card, and Pale Red and White Furniture Trifold Brochure.
Clearly, choosing serif vs. sans serif fonts play a huge part in the branding process. But what’s going on in the design world at large? Are brands embracing one font category more than the other?
In a short answer, yes.
There’s been a major shift in branding design in recent years, with a number of high-profile companies overhauling their brands to appear more modern and accessible—which has, for many, included making the shift from serif to sans serif fonts.
“In general, we've seen graphic design trending to more clean and simple. The sans serif fonts are more geometric and easier to see on screens, and because they are simple they scale well whether they are big or small,” says Young.
One of the most visible companies to hop on board the sans serif train? Google.
Google launched their sans serif-based logo in 2015. While the brand maintained it's signature primary colors, the switch from serif to sans serif immediately created a more modern, accessible feel that felt more in line with Google’s brand evolution.
“Google is a great example of a well-done serif to sans-serif rebrand,” says Downey. “They had the same serif logo for 16 years and it looked dated, especially for a tech company. While keeping the recognizable color palette that holds so much equity, they simply changed the wordmark to an uncomplicated, bold sans-serif. Overall, it was received well and gave them a much-needed facelift.”
And Google isn’t the only major company to make the leap from serif to sans serif; a ton of tech companies, like Yahoo and Spotify, have changed their logo designs to incorporate sans serif fonts—and even more traditional companies, like banking giant HSBC, have hopped on board.
Ready to follow in the footsteps of Google, Yahoo, Spotify, and HSBC and design your own sans serif logo? Get started with these Canva templates: Black and White Squares Industrial Logo, Teal Leaves Icon Fitness Logo, Teal and Orange Boxes Art & Design Logo, and Black with Utensils Icon Restaurant Logo.
So, are sans serif fonts trending in the business world? Absolutely. But just because brands are jumping on board the sans serif wagon left and right doesn’t necessarily mean you and your brand should, too. “This trend has definitely increased in popularity the last several years and although it can be a successful decision for some companies, it can be a mistake for others,” says Downey. “Changing your logo from serif to sans-serif does not always mean better.”
The point is, sans serif logos are a fantastic choice for brands who want to appear modern and cutting-edge—but if you have a more traditional business or work in a more “old school” industry, serif fonts can actually be more impactful. Some of the world’s most enduring brands (like Honda, The New York Times, and Wells Fargo) stick to serif fonts in their branding—and the more traditional look is actually a better fit for their business models.
When it comes to choosing serif vs. sans serif fonts, there’s no one-size-fits-all-solution. “When it comes to typography, there's no one right way,” says Young.
The best font for you and your brand is going to entirely depend on what you want your designs to say to your audience. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing fonts for your brand:
Serif and sans serif fonts can both be equally effective—the key is to choose a font that feels uniquely you. “Both typefaces have their place in logo design, but the decision on which to use should be made thoughtfully,” says Downey. “Your font choice should accurately reflect your brand’s personality.”
Choosing a font style that feels on-brand is important—but so is choosing a style that makes sense on the mediums and platforms people are going to use to interact with your brand. “Serifs are naturally easier for the eye to read quickly and are therefore found in most books and newspapers,” says Downey. “Sans-serifs on the other hand, mainly dominate the digital world on websites and apps.”
“For brands that intentionally want their aesthetic to feel classic and aren't as worried about how the branding with appear on a screen, a sophisticated font is a great choice,” says Young. “Brands that want a modern aesthetic that scales well at different sizes and is easy to read on screens are going to choose sans serif for their main branding elements.”
Generally speaking, serif fonts are more traditional while sans serif fonts have a more modern feel. But there are exceptions to every rule. “Although the rule of thumb is that sans-serif equals modern and serif equals traditional, they can also be explored to break design stereotypes,” says Downey. So, depending on how you use your fonts, you can absolutely create a modern look using serif fonts—or a more traditional feel with sans serif fonts.