Western Sans Serif Usage and Limitations

Ken6800's picture

Having lived in the UK for an extended period of time and recently moved back to my home country of Malaysia, I found it fascinating how dominating the usage of Sans Serif is in the West. Furthermore, usage seems to be completely limited to the following fonts or their derivatives;

DIN / Blender / etc.
Gill Sans

Every website and corporate signage appears to be using at least one of the above. I once spoke to a typographer from a Big Agency that will remain nameless who essentially said the above are all you need for readability from a long distance, and as such these fonts will continue to dominate. Serif gets dated quickly and is not good for prominent signage display.

I found the above statement fascinating, and I was wondering what your opinions were on the subject.

Ken Kamal — Branding Strategy and Design

crossgrove's picture


Nick Shinn's picture

You must have been going round the UK with your eyes closed.
Did you not shop at Tesco's, bank with Barclay's or NatWest, use the Post Office, watch Channel 4, or read a newspaper? The UK is a hotbed of proprietary corporate faces.

poms's picture

I'd like to have a look at a derivative of Arial ;)

pattyfab's picture

Avenir is getting a LOT of play nowadays, see Cingular for example.

Gotham too.

Sans is definitely easier to read on the web.

Patricio's picture

Helvetica is immortal

hrant's picture

Helvetica is undead.

Ken, I do agree that there's too much sans over here (and in general too much uniformity) not least as a result of ignorance concerning readability. But I'm surprised -in a good way- that you say Malaysia is better in that respect. Do you mean in Latin-alphabet usage, or Jawi?

BTW, try to ignore those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture.


Ken6800's picture

Nick, thought you raised some excellent examples of corporate typefaces, and I do concede Real Newspapers have retained their independence even when switching to smaller formats which is excellent - although, I believe this is an attempt to disassociate from tabloids as much as anything. :)

However, I think the point I make about the use of Sans Serif is still valid when referring to any recent rebranding or development in the UK. Look at M&S, Abbey (admittedly they dropped that disastrous logo and went back to Serif), o2, or anything done by Pentagram (not to slur them either, although I do question that "proprietary" font for the John Lewis logo). Looking at the buntings hiding building sites really did hone the point that Helvetica is undead.

I would have loved to see fonts like Baskerville used in more contemporary contexts, but apart from historic tourist attractions and a lone Ogilvy and Mather business card, it seemed to be thin on the ground.

hhp, I think it impacted on me in Malaysia when I returned to a world of Jawi, Arabic, Chinese text and calligraphy, Sanskrit and so forth. Corporate Identities often have more than one language or typeface (sometimes three or four), and even in application of the Latin alphabet Serif fonts are well entrenched here.

Unfortunately, this is not true of English newspapers in Malaysia, where Sans Serif completely dominates and everything looks and reads like the Sun (without the nudity). Kerning is also non existent here (although, admittedly, I have been guilty of this cardinal sin too)

hrant's picture

Multi-script milieus rule.


Nick Shinn's picture

Ken, I actually agree with you for the most part, and have written several articles about the dominance of a few sans faces, and tried to explain it. Some of these articles (eg The Face of Uniformity) are on my website, shinntype.com.

There's also a photo-essay I did on Helvetica in the UK:

I just thought your saying "completed limited..." was an overstatement, especially when I'm comparing Canada with the UK, and Canada doesn't have that large dimension of exciting proprietary typefaces that there are in the UK. Notwithstanding M&S!

Ken6800's picture

Love that Helvetica photo essay, especially the crumpled page from the Guardian. I completely forgot about those warnings on the cigarette packets!

Ken6800's picture

Excuse my ignorance, but off-topic a bit, what is multi-script milieus?

Nick Shinn's picture

those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture.

Hrant, try to move beyond seeing everything through a chauvinist filter.
Can you polease give us a break from your banal generalizations of "culture" and consider real people? What I "won't tolerate" (although that's your usual exaggerated inflamatory interpretation) is that Ken didn't acknowlede the highly visible work of type designers. It's not all doom and gloom, and we should big up the positive things.

hrant's picture

Milieu is just a fancy word for environment. Multi-script is like Malaysia,
or Beirut, or Bangkok, or LA, where I recently got a to-go cappuccino* from
a Vietnamese-owned coffee shop and the heat sleeve was a cell phone ad... in
Armenian! I hadn't been that proud of this city for a while.

* Mea culpa. :-/

> we should big up the positive things.

Yeah, especially Western ones.

Your reaction (maybe you should go back and read it) was
textbook, for your demographic. Just once, surprise me.


paul d hunt's picture

alright hrant, tone it down, please. no need to take a personal tone with nick.

hrant's picture

But of course "clueless idiot" and "Did I mention education, experience,
and expertise? Such a darn shame you’d never qualify." are just fine.

I know, I know, the backstage-whiny wheel gets the grease.


William Berkson's picture

Hrant, you started the personal assault in this thread with your comment "try to ignore those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture."

I don't know how others feel, but I would appreciate it if you would stop needling Nick. I like to read both his posts and yours, but the personal invective between you two is really unpleasant.

hrant's picture

Coming from an entirely even-handed source.

And of course "You must have been going round the UK with your eyes closed." was just fine too, compared to the downright villainous "try to ignore those who cannot tolerate dissent of their culture." When you consider that Ken obviously had his eyes open, which part of him is in fact being accused of being closed, exactly?

Look hard in your collective mirror guys.


William Berkson's picture

Hrant, Nick being tactless does not justify your being insulting--especially when the target of the criticism (not you) handled it graciously. If you could both dial it back, I--and I suspect a lot of others--would be relieved.

thierry blancpain's picture

yes, and that comes from someone who isnt very active here.

even just reading you two going on and on and on and on about your personal problems is tiring and often lets me stop reading a thread.

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