Sans The Serif, Boucoup The Chic! 5 Sans That Aren’t Helvetica

Sans serifs are a necessity in any designer’s toolbox. So many times they can be misunderstood as cold and boring, and that simply isn’t the case! These are the typefaces of control, transparency and information. Sans serifs make a wonderful addition to any design piece, in small or large measure. Like all typography, it’s all in how you use it. I went through my stockpiles to pull out some great examples of 5 modern typefaces that deserve some extra love (if only for the sake of them not being Helvetica)

1) Sanuk

Designed fairly recently in 2006, Sanuk is described as a “lively sans with readable shapes and a calligraphic spirit”. I love this typeface for its crisp and ‘contemporary’ feel, it’s timelessly right now– a highly ephemeral place to be with such an informative stake in it all. It’s also got eight luscious weights ranging from the ultra light ‘hairline’ weight to the chunky-yet-funky fat weight. It’s a smart choice for any design wanting a strong typographic focus, especially editorial, magazines, or corporate uses.

Looking at the full character set of Sanuk easily shows what the designer Xavier Dupré meant by ‘calligraphic spirit’. The ‘R’s and ‘K’s have that sassy leg that made me fall in love with this typeface during my internship. I used it at tiny sizes for this pocket-sized calendar, and it read beautifully. It’s a highly legible face that works equally well in 7 pt all the way to 78 pt.

When you are looking to appreciate sans serif typefaces, you first need to realize it’s all about the art of subtlety. Sans serifs are truly studies in minimalist balance. Take for example the uppercase D. It’s not spectacularly special, but why I pulled it was to show how it feels complete and balanced within itself. I love the sharp angles of the vertical stroke combined with the graceful curve of the rest of the letter. Not all D’s look like this, and I think it fits well with the different quirks of the other letters. Other letters like that K! I love that little spur on the end of that leg. It brings a sophistication to the information, and I’m not going to lie, I love a little pithy personality with my modernism. It’s not overbearing, but it does help define Sanuk as a typeface to use over Helvetica or Univers. I just need that little kick! Same goes with that fancy R. I also love it because I’d most likely be using R’s over K’s, and it just brings a great stylization to a rather transparent face. The lowercase g has to be one of my favorite letters, in any font, so I had to pull it out here. I love its horizontal ear; it’s understated but quirky, and it matches the angular/curve mixture of the bowl really nicely. The play on the angles is probably what makes it work so well in both a text face and display face.

2) Johnston Sans

This delicious humanist sans was designed by (and named after) Edward Johnston, and commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick of The Underground Group.  It’s most widely known for its use in the London Transport system, but I know it for its amazing forms. The uppercase letters demonstrate a careful reserved approach, but the lowercase are rounded and almost friendly, and I am in love with the diamonds for the dot of the i (it’s also in the j!) I have a hard time imagining what Johnston Sans couldn’t be used for. Magazines, editorial (especially the fashion industry), websites, and corporate use would all benefit from this strong typographic presence.

Looking at the full typeface, I believe it becomes very clear why I am so head over heels in love with this particular sans serif. The uppercase set contains a beautiful contrast of angles, straight lines and balanced gentle curves. I also love how the playful curvier-curves of the lowercase set balances out the uppercase letters without feeling like a separate typeface.

The characters I selected to fawn over are perfect examples of what I love about this typeface; balances in form. Each letter is sharp, crisp and strong, but there’s a refined elegance inherent with it as well. I’ll start with the K; it’s angular and sharp without feeling severe. I love how the M’s mid strokes hang gracefully in the center, — and how the Q’s tail, a simple bar– elegantly resting on the baseline. It’s in these nuanced details that really define one typeface over another, especially in the sans serif category. The S is another character that really can be a hit or miss– it can feel too top-heavy, too wobbly, and everywhere in-between, while Johnston Sans’ ‘S’ is a wonderful set of constrained curves. I also had to throw in that lowercase i to give you all a luscious close up!

3) Gotham

Designed in 2000 by Hoefler ,Frer, & Jones, Gotham is a sans serif everyone’s familiar with, but no one could ever put a name to. Collected from samples of unassuming lettering found all over New York City, Gotham was created to be “straightforward and non-negotiable typeface, possessed of great personality, and always expertly made.” Inspired by the no-nonsense approach to lettering from the eyes of Engineers, Gotham represents a hard-working typeface that’s both neutral and styled; designed to forgo the passage of time. And that it does. Gotham is so timelessly modern/vintage, it works to recreate designs in the vein of the 1930’s to 1950’s, and even looks crisp and modern to support the trendiest of today’s designs.  It’s endless perfection with infographics and signage, websites, editorial, and definitely corporate use.

Whenever I see all of Gotham together, my mind instantly goes to science labels, and other information-esque things.  I suppose it’s the ultra defined letter shapes and the clean geometric forms, but I always go to labeling. The thing about Gotham is that it’s based on the geometric form of the square and circle, and the R character speaks to the square form without being too obvious about it (unlike say, Futura)

Pulling out my favorites for this font was not a challenge at all. With sans serifs, I have quite the trend of favorite letters and I just go for it. The combination of straight lines and balanced curves get me every time!

The G is a great example of a neutral but sophisticated tone. It’s got a crisp edge and a sharp look, but the curve of the overall arc of the letter has an exaggerated curve. And we all know the greater the curve, the more friendly!

Here’s that R again! I’ve come to accept that the uppercase R is probably my favorite letter. Curves, diagonals AND a vertical line? I got it made with the letter R! For me, the letter R is one of Gotham’s “tells”.  It’s still sophisticated, but it also has some squatness to it that makes me feel it’s more party-hardy than hoity-toity. I love the mixture of point and line with this M. It doesn’t feel as airy as the Johnston Sans, but it’s got a solid presence that I always appreciate when I notice the font. I wanted to include the lowercase B because the curves are far more elongated than the majority of B’s I swoon over, but the form still feels composed.  Nobody needs a loose and saggy B!

4) Avenir

Avenir is a geometric sans serif designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1988. It was created to be a more organic, humanist interpretation of the geometric faces Erbar (designed in 1922 by Jakob Erbar) and Futura, (designed by Paul Renner in 1927).  Because it is so modern and futuristic, it is my go to typeface for a design needing a sharp, clean look.

I love this face for being a softer version of Futura and a more realistic Helvetica. Helvetica is too severe and emotion-less for my quirk loving self, and Avenir suits that role just fine. It’s equally as scientific as Gotham, but encompasses the coolness of Futura that Gotham is too friendly to hold on to. It’s a beautiful mix if I do say so myself.

The full characters of this typeface have some similar aspects with other typefaces I’ve selected (the G in Gotham, the K in Johnston Sans), but the R and M are all its own. I also am partial to that sleek and unassuming Q with its completely horizontal tail. It feels like a tape measure or roll of tape to me, and I love how it feels like a reference to a desk tool.  The lowercase letters are where I see the greatest similarities to Futura, but thank goodness it’s a normal lowercase j! The curve really makes all the difference. The bowls of the letters are actually quite round, so I wonder how well Avenir would work well in small sizes, but I’ve used it for corporate logo work and it completed the job fantastically.

The uppercase B is a better execution in curve / vertical balance. I love it’s subtle incline to meet the rounded curve, and the stroke thickens a bit at the end to balance it out visually. The C is another excellent study on a curve; it feels solid but open. I had to make that Q bigger so you could all see how sleek it was in context. I love how clean it feels in the middle of a word. It would make a beautiful acronym someplace, wouldn’t it? I like the bold face of the R better than the lighter faces. The placement of the leg along the bottom of the curve feels too close to the horizontal stroke, and I think it looks a little too wobbly among the full character set; but I like it here. Go figure!

5) Neutraface

Pronounced “noy-tra”face, this immaculate sans was created by Christian Schwartz over at House Industries in the design principles of modern architect, Richard Neutra.

I had to include this beauty– it’s easily one of my most favorite sans serifs ever, but it’s also running the risk of being too overused! I am completely guilty of the Neutraface trend; I had to set a time out for myself when using it for client branding! You can’t call yourself an original designer if all your clients have the same font. But they all really love it. And when I say ‘they’, I mean pretty much everyone. I am hard pressed to walk into a book store, clothing store, restaurant, that doesn’t feature something that uses this typeface. It’s THAT popular. Come christmas time, it’s all I ever notice! I understand the appeal completely: it’s a modern, sleek sans serif that employs feminine updates with great enthusiasm. It has 2 main sets, display and text that both relish in the modern art deco detailing. It really is being used everywhere, and most of the time it’s used appropriately, to communicate a clean, friendly and classy tone.

I wanted to showcase both sets of this typeface because they are beautiful and distinct in their details. The display features sharper contrasts between ascenders and x-heights in lowercase letters, along with lower cross bars in uppercase letters. The display face also has a wider range of weights from the ultra-luxe thin to the lusciously heavy titling that always reminds me of  the beautiful art deco style type in travel posters. The text weight, which was created to complement the display weight, has a larger x-height and increased stroke contrast to aid in legibility purposes.

So many characters to choose from! I narrowed it down to these pretties, but I really had my pick of the litter when it comes to loving on Neutraface. I love how the uppercase E feels architectural, like a staircase almost. It also creates an art deco feel with its varying lengths in bars. The M is a bit wider set character for the face, but also maintains that careful balance I love so much about the other typefaces on this list. The Q communicates an ease and a cool factor that breathes seamlessly across any medium. The tail crosses over the baseline but in a delicate way – I just love it. Along with the E, the R is a great ‘tell’ to the Neutraface. It’s got quite a distinct curve to it, with a dropped cross-bar that makes the leg a bit squat. Looking back at the full character set, only the characters will the combination of rounded and vertical lines feel squat, even though the majority of the uppercase letters feature dropped cross bars (A, E, F, H, P, R,).

I hope you enjoyed reading about my favorite sans serifs as much as I loved writing about them! What fonts are your favorites and why?

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