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humanist brinar

As I'm sure most you have noticed, the use of sans serif fonts for text (or body copy) is rapidly increasing. What was, in the 20th century, a statement of rebellion and a willingness to radically step outside the box has become an expression of modern sophistication -- especially within the wired (and wireless) community.

Most of us were taught that sans serif cannot really be used for body copy because it is hard to read in a large block of type. It works very well for short blocks of type like headlines and subhead, billboards, and so on. However, for a paragraph like the one you are reading, sans serif was a definite no-no.

Many sans serif fonts are unreadable

Many factors cause this to be true. Much of it has to do with the lettershapes themselves. In many sans fonts, the differences between characters is much less than we what we normally read. So, what we need is a sans serif with character variations that seem familiar -- what is commonly called a humanist sans.

Fontscape* defines humanist sans as
      "Sans-serif typefaces with oval shapes and variations in stroke thickness to create a more graceful, human appearance."
I agree that is usually true.

Wikipedia* says,
      "These are the most calligraphic of the sans-serif typefaces, with some variation in line width and more readability than other sans-serif fonts."
This is also true but these two definitions still miss the point. They have not defined what causes these fonts to be more readable. There are several factors.

Humanist fonts

Among the first fonts cut after Gutenberg's* civilization-changing inventions, were a group of fonts exemplified by those cut by Nicolas Jenson* starting in 1470. These fonts had many characteristics that served them well. So good were these designs that they changed font design for all time.

Handwritten: they were based on the handwriting of the medieval scribes of Italy

Organic: softly rounded, with reasonably strong calligraphic shapes

Humanist sans come from the root and attitude of humanist serif fonts.

First: Axis

Humanist fonts (serif or sans) have an axis resulting from the angle of the pen nib when producing calligraphy. This axis is between 25 and 45. They tend to look more like they are done by humans instead of machines. This is one of the main reasons why they seem so "comfortable".
* See readability chart

Second: Modulation

readabilityHumanist forms have a natural thick-thin swelling & shrinking of the strokes as if it were draw calligraphically. This makes the character shapes easier to distinguish helping word recognition. However, this modulation is subtle and graceful without the extremes of the modern fonts of the 18th century. In general, there is a low contrast between the thick and thin portions of the character shapes.

Third: Aperture

Aperture refers to the size of the opening on characters like a*c*e*s and the like. Humanist forms have a very open aperture. This helps us to avoid confusing an e for an o or vice versa.

This is a very underrated feature: In my experience, virtually every time someone claims to have designed a more readable font they have opened the aperture in the process. In the readability graphic notice the difference in aperture between Gill Sans and Jenson. Now we can clearly see why Jenson is so easy to read.

Fourth: Slanted crossbar on the e

This is a calligraphic device or artifact of the pen that gives a more open aperture to the letter. It has a natural calligraphic flow. I tend to use slanted crossbars on the AEF&H because I think it helps readability there also -- but that's probably only personal pleasure.

Fifth: Double story a & g

Having two-level shapes for these letters makes them easier to recognize -- helping readability. The single level shapes for the a & g can easily be confused with eo & bdpq. This is especially true for fonts like you see to the right: Futura and Bauhaus.
futura and bauhaus

Sixth: Oval letterforms

Humanist letterforms (like serif fonts in general) tends to use more oval lettershapes for BCDGOPQRSabcdegmnopqsu and the like. These ovals vary slightly for the various characters making individual shapes easier to distinguish.

The combination of all these factors make a comfortable & readable font

Some of the small group of sans serif fonts to use most of these design features have been around for quite a while. Foremost, and one of the first, is Optima.


The real problem with Optima is that it's too formal, and too vertical. I get tense just looking at it (but then I've been forced to use it far too much over the years) .

One of the newest is my font Brinar, and it's close cousin the more rounded Arinar. These fonts are an attempt to design a font with the humanist design benefits I just listed as the primary design criteria. A very readable sans has resulted.


If you search identifont.com for humanist sans text you'll get a list of 34 fonts that should meet your needs. Many of them are really not humanist as we are defining it here. but it's a good place to start looking. You'll find something you like.

Body Copy Sans




The perfect replacement for sans body text

Regardless, you need to add a truly humanist sans to your font library. Increasingly, clients are demanding sans serif body copy. These new fonts make that possible without losing the necessary readability to make your designs work. They can allow you to look current without destroying readability and damaging the results of your client's marketing plan.

This is a font you'll use a lot!

David Bergsland

Get Arinar & Brinarspecial offer

A short-term very special price... nearly half off!

Two four-font humanist sans families normally priced at $24.95 each or $44.95 for each family. Now for only $49 for all eight fonts.

Simply go to the following Web address and click the buy button: bergsland.org

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Further learning on Humanist type faces:

See: Humanist Movement, Textura, Uncial The Middle Ages 1450: the invention of moveable type by Johann Gutenberg; 1458: the development of the first standardized type face by Nicolas Jenson -- known as "Old Style ... and
* Heritage Fonts historic flavor of tradition The founders of typography such as Claude Garamond, Nicolas Jenson and William Caxton had set forth the basic fundamental structure of letterforms and fonts ...

Also by David:

BEST Gradient Paragraph Rules
BEST Art from Dingbats
BEST New Typography: What difference does it make?
BEST Complex Tables in Adobe InDesign
BEST Using Numbers in the proper Case

David Bergsland

David has been a graphic designer, art director, teacher, and author on digital printing and publishing for nearly forty years. He has written several books, See his books and tutorial materials) designed well over a hundred fonts, and taught on the digital publishing industry needs for the past fifteen years. Presently he is working for a large printing company developing training materials for InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat. Most of his recent works are published by Radiqx Press and available on his Website: bergsland.org

Copyright ©2007 David Bergsland This is reprinted here with permission and kudos to David for contributing some of is extensive knowledge for DTG readers!

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