The Death of Serif Fonts

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

In 2375, after a long, hard fought battle, the last piece of media is released with the use of a sans serif font. Old Vendome, was the last to go down. From this point onward, nothing containing serif fonts is created, physically or electronically. The death bell for serifs tolls in 2375.

George Thomas's picture

Try making some sense of that after you sober up.

quadibloc's picture

When I was a young lad, I thought that serifs were needless embellishments, and that they were old-fashioned, and we should move to sans-serif typefaces. Now, I appreciate the readability and beauty of serif typefaces, and I expect they will be around as long as the Latin alphabet.

typerror's picture

In all deference to Ganeau, (as much as I think of Vendome and its unique qualities)... if that face is the last vestige of serif fonts left in the year 2375 then we truly are undone. And as Majus said, sober up! Sans are a passing, boring/uninspired, fad.

rs_donsata's picture

Reminds me of Carson.

hrant's picture

I think head-serifs will actually grow considerably by 2375, on account of global warming.

An aside about Vendôme: In David Rault's recent book about Excoffon, José Mendoza y Almeida states: "I saw Ganeau’s test proofs and I can attest that all, or almost all of Vendôme’s originality, including the deliberate (and in my view excessive) aggressiveness is due to Excoffon’s hand, to his indulgence in the subtle interplay of forms, designs, practices, traditions. Very dynamic, very novel, fresh and intense, Vendôme is a typeface for combat rather than comfort." (My translation.)

hhp

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Today, learn about the Armenian Genocide.

CanwllCorfe's picture

When I was a young lad, I thought that serifs were needless embellishments, and that they were old-fashioned, and we should move to sans-serif typefaces.

I actually had that very experience in my first typography class. They were fanatical about Helvetica, but not so much about any serif fonts. I'm partial to most anything, but I had quite a fondness for Baskerville. I still do. I don't see them dying any time soon. On second thought, Baskerville is over 200 years old.

riccard0's picture

Baskerville is over 200 years old

The model for Trajan is almost 2000 years old, and still going strong ;-)

sko's picture

I actually had that very experience in my first typography class. They were fanatical about Helvetica, but not so much about any serif fonts.

Something similar happened during my graphic design classes. Serifs were not used chosen very often, except rather than Helvetica, the 'in-thing' was Gotham.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

The serifs days are numbered. You wait...

I didn't know Excoffon had anything to do with Vendome. No wonder I like it.

oldnick's picture

Trends come and trends go. Even now—when the Space Race has been co-opted by the Race to Develop the Sans Face with the Quirkiest Double-story Lowercase A—serifs are alive and well in fanciful type. Those severe lines and blunt terminals just can’t compete with the swirls and curls that come natural to serifs.

Just sayin’…

CanwllCorfe's picture

@riccard0 I forgot about Trajan... I should have used that. But then again I don't think there's many 2,000 year old people (that's two Methuselahs!), so my unbelievably witty joke wouldn't have worked as well. I haven't used Trajan in forever. I did use Cyan, which is based off of it though. I'm gonna stop now before I keep rambling.

@sko I'm surprised I didn't hear much about Gotham! I actually think that behind Helvetica, there wasn't much of any other popular choices. It was kind of like a free for all. I did see a lot of Bleeding Cowboys.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

rs, which Carson?

hrant's picture

The font, NotCarson. It's incredibly readable.

hhp

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

You think rs donsata is comparing Vendome to NotCarson?

hrant's picture

Dude, how young are you?
http://www.emigre.com/EF.php?fid=111

hhp

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Do you think NotCaslon was an attack against Sans Serifs?

hrant's picture

I think it was an attack on fonts.

hhp

sko's picture

@CanwllCorfe It wasn't really when we started, but while the classes went on they started talking about Gotham. Early on there was a lot of display face (ab?)use too.

Behind those, it was mostly a mix of different flavours of Sans with a few serifs popping up.

rs_donsata's picture

Yeah... David Carson and some other people went berserk about type and expected a riotous revolution on type in the 90's which later turned into typographic revisionism on the 2000's.

We are not very likely to get rid of serif faces until someone invents some better performing style or we stop reading thing longer than a magazine spread.

Nick Shinn's picture

The idea that serifs will become functionally obsolete is a nice little myth of modernism.
Whether serifs are useful to the process of reading-as-deciphering-text is besides the point.
Type forms are invested with far more meaning than that, and it is not just an aesthetic veneer.

hrant's picture

Throw into the mix that "serif face" is not as easy to define as one might like... Remember the serif axis of Penumbra? :-)

hhp

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Ok, Carson using NotCaslon, or something like that. I get it. I really do. Dada. and then some. anyway, 2375 shall not be the end of type design, or rather a whiplash reaction to neoclassicism, which was what NotCaslon actually was, and which, by the way has been rather defeated across most artistic disciplines, but the end to Serif Fonts. And there are Serifs all over NotCaslon.

rs_donsata's picture

Once people tought radio would kill the newspapers, then television was meant to kill radio, then internet was meant to kill television. I am really curious about what would be meant to kill the internet.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

Font selection isn't media darwinism.

sevag's picture

@Héctor
Self distraction.

@Hrant: It's incredibly readable.
Allow me to disagree. Particularly the words underlined in the image below require some extra effort.

hrant's picture

I said NotCarson is incredibly readable... It was a joke. :-)

hhp

sevag's picture

Pardon my ignorance.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

I actually think NotCarson, and it's second cut evenmore so, is incredibly exquisite and beautiful. I imagine this is most due to a type designer's slavery to systematic thinking more than any rebelliousness.

but all fancy lines die in 2375.

quadibloc's picture

@rs_donsata:
Once people tought radio would kill the newspapers, then television was meant to kill radio, then internet was meant to kill television.

It's true that newspapers aren't dead yet.

However, television has meant that people only listen to the radio for music. You don't hear drama programs on the radio, like Fibber McGee and Molly, or Little Orphan Annie, or Captain Midnight, or, for that matter, Gunsmoke - which was on the radio before it got moved to TV - any more.

And the Internet is filling many of the otherwise idle hours of people that they might have spent watching television. And the effects of the many channels of TV on local broadcasters before that are well-known as well.

Now, what might be the next big thing after the Internet... well, whoever brings it about stands to make billions of dollars, so if I were able to foresee it, I would be doing it, not telling you about it. But I agree that since the Internet is so flexible, and it allows people to create, not just consume, it would seem like any future media could be placed on the Internet rather than superceding it.

Although it's hard to monetize stuff on the Internet, so that might be an excuse for putting stuff elsewhere - but then it's not likely that whatever it is would be nearly as big as the Internet, since it would cost more.

hrant's picture

Nevermind...

hhp

quadibloc's picture

@Nick Shinn:
The idea that serifs will become functionally obsolete is a nice little myth of modernism.
Whether serifs are useful to the process of reading-as-deciphering-text is besides the point.
Type forms are invested with far more meaning than that, and it is not just an aesthetic veneer.

You may be 100% right, but I tend to be inclined to take issue with some of this.

I fully agree with your first paragraph... except that I'd be inclined to add "in the foreseeable future" as a qualification. I don't think it's absolutely impossible for serifs to go out of fashion.

While it would seem incredible to me if typefaces like Helvetica, Univers, Futura, and Gill Sans pushed out serif faces, that the evolution of typographic preferences could go in the direction of Optima, Radiant, Lydian, Freehand... in short, towards some other cues which add redundancy to the letterform... thus displacing serifs as the attribute of choice seems not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility.

When it comes to your second paragraph, I'm not sure that my unease with it is because of disagreement. I feel uncomfortable making definite categorical statements about matters of taste. My aesthetic preferences may not be the same as those of many or most other people, now or in the future.

So, if serifs aid "reading-as-deciphering", at least that's one objective straw I can hang on to in an argument. I may feel that serifs will continue to be liked for aesthetic reasons, but what can really be said with any definiteness about the fickleness of public taste and fashions?

Of course, we all know the story about Hitler and Fraktur. It's not beyond imagination that the Western world might be saddled with regimes that consider serif typefaces to be "bourgeois" and proscribe them. If that keeps on for long enough, even after liberation, sans-serif faces will be what people are used to and hence find legible.

When it comes to your third paragraph: I'm sure you're right, but I find your meaning to lie somewhat beyond my grasp.

Aside from the "aesthetic veneer", what is the meaning of type?

One example might be that, at present, a sans-serif typeface sends one kind of message when used in, say, a letterhead... and a serif typeface sends another. A student newspaper at a college might be set in Univers, but never a major daily.

But that kind of meaning tends to be relative to whatever the current baseline of fashion might be. So it doesn't seem to be much of a bulwark against a changed world in which using Optima instead of Univers sends the same message that using Times Roman instead of Univers currently sends.

I don't think you were instead talking about how typefaces allude to Jenson and Aldus and company; that would invite derision if it were meant to describe the habits and reactions of the general reader without typographic sophistication.

So this is why I'm having problems with your posting. I may, like you, feel convinced because of my strong subjective preference for serif fonts in some contexts that the Latin-alphabet using portion of the human race won't turn its back on them any time soon. But that seems to me to be just a personal opinion, rather than a finding based on hard empirical data, so I would feel ashamed to present it as a reliable conclusion to other people.

And, as an example drawn from recent discussion here, although today Armenian is often printed in typefaces with serifs in imitation of Latin and Cyrillic typefaces, it got along for decades with the Bolorgir style of type which had stroke width variation but no serifs.

For that matter, I've seen Gujarati typeset in faces that imitate Latin and add serifs, but that's not common except as a style of display type.

I suppose, then, after being reminded of this by mentioning Gujarati (and there have been illustrations here of even Korean being typeset in mock-Latin styles) the strongest argument for the persistence of serif type is that even if it does fall strongly out of fashion as a primary text type, it will still exist as a stylistic option - and stylistic options don't tend to get completely discarded.

oldnick's picture

Aside from the "aesthetic veneer", what is the meaning of type?

Type has no meaning per se; rather, type is a means to an end. The “æsthetic veneer” is the more or less unique attitude which an individual typeface’s design contributes to the process of communicating information, whether of a factual or fanciful nature.

Serifs will never “die” because memories have emotive power; from time to time, we revisit the past and mine those memories, for better or for worse.

Nick Shinn's picture

Myths may or may not be true.

Modernism was inherently reductive with respect to form, and classic modernism removed serifs, considering them to be unnecessary ornaments. That is the myth.

However, perhaps Modernism should have embraced serifs, if they do indeed perform a useful function to the process of reading.

Certainly, traditionalists believe that serifs are indispensible for optimum readability. That too is a myth. The present scientific intelligence, as far as I am aware, offers no evidence one way or the other.

In reading science, the myth seems to be that, beyond a few easily-identifiable categories, all the many different type styles which exist have no bearing on the process of reading-as-deciphering (no doubt because they don’t effect reading speed). That is what I mean by aesthetic veneer.

However, I find it hard to accept that typeface subtleties exist only to cue the reader into what sort of document she is about to read, and then vanish from awareness once she becomes immersed.

In art theory, the “innocent eye” was long ago discredited.

oldnick's picture

Nick,

Not to put too fine a point on it but, in a classical sense, myths are always true because they explain First Principles. It is an unfortunate latter-day tendency to conflate “myth” with “urban legends” and the like.

Few things, once noticed, really vanish from awareness: more often than not, they're just moved to the back burner.

Nick Shinn's picture

To put a finer point on it: Modernism and Traditionalism may be considered myths, in both of which serifs play a role irrespective of any empirically demonstrable function.

In those mythical roles, serifs are true to the precepts of the myths, whether or not it’s true that that they improve readability.

That makes perfect sense to me, because from my perspective as a typographer, more practical than ideological, I have always found it very useful to combine both in layouts with complex hierarchies of text, the contrast between sans and serif type proving practically indispensible.

hrant's picture

although today Armenian is often printed in typefaces with serifs in imitation of Latin and Cyrillic typefaces, it got along for decades with the Bolorgir style of type which had stroke width variation but no serifs.

It's certainly true that many contemporary Armenian fonts -like Sylfaen- have too many serifs (which isn't just an æsthetic problem - it causes readability issues) and that mostly comes directly from Latin (and I guess Cyrillic) type. But traditional Armenian letterforms aren't exactly sans either... They often have what are basically serifs that are in fact so long they often get confused by non-natives for horizontal bars! The key thing to realize is the strong role of slant in Armenian authenticity, and that throws an interesting wrench into the sans-versus-serif debate, as well as the true nature of an optimal "italic" for Armenian. The latter probably remains the single biggest question mark in my own head.

Type has no meaning per se

I would counter that everything has meaning, especially something visible (since the human reality is so strongly dependent on vision).

The present scientific intelligence, as far as I am aware, offers no evidence one way or the other.

Neither does reading entrails, which frankly seems qualitatively equal in scientific rigor to "present scientific intelligence" concerning reading; but that still leaves us with regular intelligence, which points squarely towards serifs helping reading.

hhp

quadibloc's picture

@hrant:
They often have what are basically serifs that are in fact so long they often get confused by non-natives for horizontal bars!

Hmm. Maybe this explains why some Armenian capital letters - or initials - have horizontal strokes so thin that they're actually nonexistent.

So some strokes that are believed by outsiders to be elements of the character are actually just large serifs? Then, indeed, serifs on serifs would create a confusing fractal effect...

Although if the Armenians in Armenia are happy with thoroughly Latinized typefaces, and only those in the diaspora, under the pervasive influence of other scripts (but, on the other hand, the Arabic script, the main outside influence on Armenians in Lebanon, unlike the Latin script, would seem to be less likely to have a corrupting influence...) value the distinctive characteristics of Bolorgir... then one might despair of finding anywhere an authentic authenticity of Armenian visual sense.

So I suppose one will have to venture to contact Armenians in Lebanon to find out their typeface style preferences... although they likely have far more pressing concerns.

hrant's picture

horizontal strokes so thin that they're actually nonexistent.

I have a theory that this might come from blindly emulating eroded inscriptions.
http://armenotype.com/wp-content/gallery/highlights/dsc_0377.jpg

In terms of the difference between long one-sided serifs versus crucial elements, it can get pretty subtle. Here's an illustration from my recent Armenotype article*:
http://armenotype.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/illustration2.gif
That's from my first-ever outline font, which I made by staring (without magnification) at the letterforms in a document set in Compugraphic's Barz (possibly the most ubiquitous Bolorgir, at least back then). Look at the bottom-left corners of the descenders: it was probably hopeless (I was too inexperienced to appreciated the total disappearance of tiny details at text sizes on laser printers on lousy paper...) but I tried to implement a difference between serifs versus actual horizontal bars - the «ի», «խ» and «կ» have serifs, while the «լ» and «ղ» have bars.

* http://armenotype.com/2012/04/archipelago/

if the Armenians in Armenia are happy with thoroughly Latinized typefaces

Not all of them are happy. And some of them are "happy" because they see it as a necessary evil, sort of how -I and others believe- Ataturk converted Turkish from Latin to Arabic - to play along with the victorious West after WWI. As for the rest, I hope they'll attend my talk in Yerevan in the second week of June... :-)

--

The Armenian communities in Lebanon have severely weakened over the years, and many of those that remain have trouble staying Armenian (something our US communities were previously infamous for). It's ironic that they were strongest at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. I still have a lot of family there (including a cousin who used to be the editor of Aztag, once the premiere diasporan newspaper) but sadly I can't consider the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon to be trend-setting in any way these days.

BTW, Lebanon -still- has two official languages: Arabic and French. Coupled to the fact that English is the lingua franca, any Lebanese person (especially an Armenian one, since we're more Western than the average Lebanese) is at least as influenced by Latin forms as Arabic ones. There are even certain strata of Lebanese people who want to deny they're Arab, to the point of making some Arabic words sound French. :-/ A classic example is the word for rat, "jardon" (affectedly pronounced with a "gh" for the "r", and a nasal "n") which in fact is nothing but the Arabic word "jirthaan"! Lebanon is funny. Anyway, I digress...

hhp

dberlow's picture

HP: 'Neither does reading entrails, which frankly seems qualitatively equal in scientific rigor to "present scientific intelligence" concerning reading;'

[He's kidding again.]

"...but that still leaves us with regular intelligence, which points squarely towards serifs helping reading."

...if device resolution/printing allows them to do their job... if not, according to regular intelligence, they almost all must fall off.

hrant's picture

If the resolution is low enough they do get too thick/tall, but I wonder if strategically letting them touch (laterally) might actually promote boumas. Serif-wise ligation.

And to in a way rephrase something I wrote above: contrary to what tradition might say, serifs don't need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. We should really be looking at where they need to go beyond "well, that's how my pappy did it". Does this in effect make them a "structural element" instead of mere bling? Unsettlingly, but yes it must.

hhp

dberlow's picture

HP: "I wonder if strategically letting them touch (laterally) might actually promote boumas"

That's an interesting question, of course, but if the market is any indication, and outside of high resolution-specific specifications, (e.g. the Kindle), serifs have been relegated to the back seat. And I'm pretty sure from the designs of nearly all serif text faces that I'm familiar with, that serifs touching is not beneficial.

"...serifs don't need to be an all-or-nothing proposition..."

But when it comes down to executing a readable design in low resolution opentype-free environments, some-serif fonts show serifs on only I, 1 and maybe a few others. Why? "Sometimes-some-serif" fonts might be more promising, when contextual layout is more widely used. In the meantime, I'd very much like to see your trials of a bouma-optimized sometimes-some-serif font, which I think you think you can do now. The place I think feets could be more beneficial are on beginnings and ends of words, and on stems above and below the x-ht, incl. caps.

hrant's picture

But/and what about "traditional" semi-serif designs, where the leftward ones (typically on heads) and rightward ones (feet) can still maintain one-pixel gaps (without stems becoming too distant)?

hhp

Thomas Phinney's picture

> but I wonder if strategically letting them touch (laterally) might actually promote boumas.

All the available evidence, as well as generally accepted theory, suggests that if serifs touching has any effect on legibility, it would be bad.

That includes this recent research, presented at ATypI Reykjavik (September 2011):
http://www.atypi.org/past-conferences/2011-reykjavik/programme/activity?...

That does not mean that the effect would be significant under normal/good reading conditions. I for one was always surprised that setting entire paragraphs in Blue Island works so well. http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/blue-island/

Cheers,

T

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