What It Means
A sans serif letter is one that contains no-frills strokes, just clean and relatively simple lines with no “feet” or cross-strokes at the end of each stem. These typefaces were originally heralded as being more neutral and more legible than their seriffed predecessors. With the modern design aesthetic of the post-war era and the desire for bold, simple neutrality, sans serif faces were adopted to the point of ubiquity. In our present-day, sans serif fonts are inescapable for many reasons. They are used in signage, brochures, textbooks, and advertisements because of their accessibility and legibility. Their bold and simple lines make them popular choices for very tasteful design projects, as well.
But just because sans serif faces are everywhere doesn’t mean that they are all the same. Just as with human beings, each one has a different size and shape, different lines, and distinguishing marks, a completely different look and feel. And just so, no one should confine themselves to using the same boring been-there-done-that fonts (here’s looking at you, Arial and Helvetica).
What It’s For
Since the advent of online publishing, sans serif fonts have been proclaimed the best typefaces for onscreen viewing. These college fonts have also been said to be easier to read for small children. Their use on road signage is a testimony to their legibility at many sizes and under many variations invisibility. Although legibility research results are inconclusive according to some, sans serifs have definitely earned their stripes as all-purpose, readable faces.
Another reason many people turn to sans serif fonts is their relative informality. Compared to the classical hauteur of the traditional serif faces, a sans serif can appear more approachable and can even give an air of freshness to a design.
When choosing serif fonts for your own use, I recommend picking at least three for different uses. You may have some very well-designed but underused typefaces on your computer now that would serve you well for such tasks as email composition or web publishing; I particularly like Verdana for these purposes. But you’ll want something more unique (and perhaps less utilitarian) for creating your own stationery, putting together a presentation for work or school, or designing a public notice or poster. Because there are so many variations in sans serif faces, you will have limitless options for expressing yourself and your purpose.
However, because of the ubiquity of certain faces and their very near relatives (Helvetica, Arial, Univers, etc.), I have omitted the most commonly used typefaces from my recommendations. After all, I’m writing this so we can collectively buck typographical conformity!
Best Free Fonts
If you’re not a professional designer and can handle the noncommercial clauses contained in most free-font usage guidelines, then you’ve got a very wide world of free sans serifs available for you to download and install. DaFont.com is by far my favorite free-typeface clearinghouse, with a huge number of faces gleaned from myriad Internet sources on a continual basis.
Some of my favorite sans serifs are Geo Sans Light, London Between (a blatant knockoff and guilty pleasure; see London Underground below), and Petita. Each is legible but retains uniqueness and personality, the firebrand red to Arial’s monotonous gray.
Best Non-Free Fonts
For my money, you can’t beat the Art Deco-era geometry of Futura, the elegant legibility of London Underground, or the newsroom electricity of Benton Gothic. And best of all, each of these typefaces comes along with a fantastic and colorful provenance of inspiration, creation, and usage in modern times.
Off the Beaten Path
Cafeta offers bold, condensed letterforms. Although the kerning (space between letter pairs) can be hit-and-miss, it makes a striking typeface for all-caps headings. And if you need big, beefy, soft-cornered weight, look no further than SansBlack. For a touch of calligraphic elegance and conservatism, try Vera Humana 95, one of my favorite finds for use in brochures, resumes, and business stationery.
A quick note on how to download and install fonts
Downloadable free fonts usually come packaged in a ZIP file. Save this to a folder you will remember. Open the file, and drag the TrueType or Open Type files out. If you’re using a Mac, double click the files and click “Install Font.” If you’re using a PC, open the Control Panel, open Fonts, click File gt; Install New Font, then browse the directory. Find the folder with your typefaces, select the fonts you want to install and click “Install”. Remember to check the readme or .txt files with the face to ensure that your use will comply with the creator’s wishes.