Serifs and what they are all about

A little bit of typography for the day. Serifs are the little extra bits of line on a character (e.g. the downward ticks on this letter “T”). They’ve been around for thousands of years, yet the origin is not entirely agreed on. Today we continue to use serifs, but we also don’t agree on why or whether it is beneficial. It is even debated where the term “serif” originated itself! Serifs stick out, quite literally, but their purpose and history is vague and unknown.

Image from "I Love Typography"
Image from “I Love Typography”

Origins of serifed typefaces remain fuzzy and unclear. There are a lot of theories, but one in particular is the most agreed upon: the Romans. When carving characters into a stone face, ends of the lines can become rough and unkempt. As the theory goes, Ancient Roman stoneworkers found that by adding lines on the tops and bottom, the letters can be given a crisp and even appearance. Using a serifed typeface today, however, doesn’t fit this purpose.

Faint serifs seen on a Roman stone (used in building Saint Ulrich's Church in Zavoglje, Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Faint serifs seen on a Roman stone (used in building Saint Ulrich’s Church in Zavoglje, Ljubljana, Slovenia)

Today, many use serifs because it is claimed to be easier to read. The horizontal lines are supposed to bring the eye forward, allowing for smoother scanning of texts. But this claim is also fairly unsubstantiated and there is a lot of conflicting data on the subject. Researcher Alex Poole came to a conclusion filled with more questions:

What initially seemed a neat dichotomous question of serif versus sans serif has resulted in a body of research consisting of weak claims and counter-claims, and study after study with findings of “no difference”. Is it the case that more than one hundred years of research has been marred by repeated methodological flaws, or are serifs simply a typographical “red herring”?

Perhaps we won’t learn why serifs came about or even why we continue to use them. One thing is for certain: serifs aren’t going anywhere.

Image © 2013 Tom Gabor
Image © 2013 Tom Gabor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *