In American English, "grotesque" means ugly. But grotesque sans serif fonts have remained a primary choice of typographers through nearly two centuries — surely not the performance of homely typefaces. Most historians agree the term was adapted from the Italian word "grottesco," which means "of the cave, or grotto."
William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry in London was the first person to use the term in describing sans serif fonts. Not a typographer himself, he purchased the foundry at auction in 1820 with lottery winnings. The previous owner and typeface designer Robert Thorne had died, leaving a large body of work at the foundry. Thorowgood successfully used the term "grotesque" to promote the sale of a typeface he acquired as an asset of the foundry.
Sans serif fonts began to be used in England around 1816. At first the simplified, no frills typefaces were offered only in all caps. Thorowgood's foundry was the first to offer sans serif fonts that included lower case letters. Today, sans serif typefaces are favorites of web designers because their straight edges hold up well to on-screen bitmapping.
Grotesque typefaces are characterized by capitals that share nearly the same height-to-width ratio (giving rounded characters a more oval shape), slight variation of stroke and a generous x-height. Characters with jaws (such as a, c, e, etc.) are rounded and nearly closed. Akzidenx-Grotesk and Franklin Gothic are commonly used examples of grotesque typefaces.
During the 1950s a simplification in design, called Swiss modernism, gave birth to the even cleaner typefaces of the neo-grotesque classification. The most common typefaces in this group are Helvetica and Univers, which are both cornerstones of typography.
Though derived from their grotesque cousins, the neo's have almost no variation in stroke thickness. Jawed characters are much more open. Round characters are more circular and the lower case "g" has an open tail.
The Arial font family is a modern favorite, developed in 1982 by Monotype for exclusive use in IBM's 3800-3 laser printer. Monotype designers Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders led a 10-person team to hand draw the set of characters. In 1990 Steve Matteson joined Nicholas and Saunders to produce a True Type version which was licensed to Microsoft. Arial become one of the four TrueType fonts that were released with Windows 3.1 only two years later.
In 1922 Jakob Erbar, typeface designer for the Ludwig & Meyer Foundry in Frankfurt, Germany, released the first geometric sans serif font, called Erbar. The instantly popular typeface was reissued in later years by Linotype.
Development of geometric typefaces are considered a result of the Bauhaus modernization movement of post-World War I Germany. The idea was to look at a whole project as an art form with complementary elements including architecture, interior design, fine arts, graphics and typography. Bauhaus style was devoted to extreme simplification, usefulness, and the ability to sustain artistic qualities in mass-produced products.
Other, more well-known typefaces, such as Futura and Century Gothic, followed the success of Erbar. Clearly the most used geometric typeface is Futura, designed by Paul Renner in 1927 for the Bauer Type Foundry, also in Frankfurt, Germany. The Futura font family is currently licensed by International Typeface Corporation (ITC).
The stroke thickness of geometric fonts is very uniform and the characters have sharp angles and bold circles. The lowercase "a" is circular, instead of the more Roman 2-story style of other sans serif classes. The combination of thin and fat shapes, fitting tightly together, commands attention. Geometric fonts are less readable as body text than other sans serif classes.
Starting around 1930, typeface designers wanted more readable sans serif fonts that could be used for body text. The result was humanist typefaces, which returned to the smaller x-heights and capitals typical of traditional serif fonts.
Optima is one of the most well-known type families in the humanist category. Its strokes are marked by a calligraphic flare. Herman Zapf designed Optima in 1958 for the D. Stempel AG Foundry in Frankfurt, Germany. The font is now offered by Linotype. Other well-known humanist typefaces include Eras, Gill Sans and Tahoma.
Informal sans serif typefaces reflect the individualism of 21st century typography. We are experiencing a transition toward more casual sans serif fonts, that may be used anywhere type is set — for text blocks, headlines or online. The relaxed styles of informals present designers with new choices in typeface combinations. This design trend is relatively young, starting toward the end of the 20th century. In general, informal sans serif typefaces have curves in the strokes and a hint of organic handwriting. Each font is more individual than seen in other sans serif classifications.
Highlander is a good example of an informal sans serif font. Typeface designer David Farey based Highlander on the handwriting of famed graphic artist Oswald Cooper. The font family is owned by ITC and published by Linotype. Other informals include Benguiat Gothic, Frankfurter and Mercurius.
Now you've seen some samples of sans serif typefaces, you might be interested in learning more about these kinds of fonts, so why not consult our article on the differences between serif and sans serif fonts.
Resources and References
The original Grotesque font family is available for licensing and download from Monotype Imaging – https://www.ascendercorp.com/font/grotesque/
Sans serif fonts – https://www.urbanfonts.com/fonts/sans-serif-fonts.htm
Bruce Clay, Inc.: Selecting Typefaces https://www.bruceclay.com/design/type.htm
Buzzle.com: Helvetica Font https://www.buzzle.com/articles/helvetica-font.html
CreativePro.com: The Bauhaus Designer Paul Renner https://www.creativepro.com/article/the-bauhaus-designer-paul-renner
Family Classifications of Type https://graphicdesign.spokanefalls.edu/tutorials/process/type_basics/sans_serif.htm
Font Factory: Sans Serif Category https://www.fontfactory.com/categories.php/cPath/22
MyFonts: Fann Street Foundry https://new.myfonts.com/foundry/Fann_Street_Foundry/
MyFonts: Franklin Gothic https://new.myfonts.com/fonts/bitstream/franklin-gothic/
MyFonts: Futura https://new.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/futura/
MyFonts: Helvetica https://new.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/helvetica/
MyFonts: ITC Highlander https://new.myfonts.com/fonts/linotype/itc-highlander/
MyFonts: Optima https://new.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/optima/
Typolexikon.de: Grotesk: https://www.typolexikon.de/g/grotesk.html
Typophile: William Thorowgood https://typophile.com/node/16722
Typophile: Robert Thorne https://typophile.com/node/16721
Graphics by Gwen Hagaman