December 9, 2014 by Christoper P Jones
Serif: Lettering With Style?
To serif or not to serif?
The small projecting barbs on the ends of letters that indicate more than mere ornament.
The semi-structural detailing, vestiges of the classical pen or paint brush.
What is their purpose, Or has post-modernism determined their obsolescence?
Serifs are to letters what plinths are to columns, what coving is to domestic housing, and what spoilers are to cars.
In this way, the serif is burdened with the weight of meaningless expectation.
The absence of the serif, sans-serif, tips the balance towards simplicity.
Bold becomes vivid.
It labours without the pretence of beautification.
The fundamental elements here are the straight line and the right angle.
These are the pleasures of invariability.
The greed for simplicity. Abstemious.
The letters line up shoulder to shoulder without the padding of vanity or prestige.
They gesture towards the anonymous, the systematic, the objective.
Restraint suggests righteousness.
The proposal of the ascetic, or the achievement in the realm of ethics and self-knowledge.
Try to think. Expect to edify.
But do we mean to say, ladies and gentlemen, that all decoration must be passed over to sobriety?
What about the poets’ club?
Novels wallow in serifs, isn’t that the case?
(And yet the dust-jacket blurb, written by somebody else, tends to employ the sans-serif. They are but editors and critics!)
The serif embellishment eloquently opposes the structured deliberateness of the sans-serif through the mystery of the permanence and indestructibility.
No no. The serif is faux-aristocratic pretence. Democracy functions through the hallmark of the perpendicular and the angular. No structural melody for us, please.
Oh but you overlook the romance of the serif. The gliding arc that brings a letter to its conclusion speaks of the poetic drive, to seek harmony, to paint and to make music. A vertical bar meets the line with a buoyant flourish. This organic form, much like the shape of a tree as it meets the ground and spreads its roots, so much less brutal than the sans-serif. Letters are more than just posts stuck in the ground.
Language! Serifs are akin to a type of diabolic splendour, pivoting between glory and immorality in a Byron-esque manner. So it is taken as a hip-swinging swagger, the high point of regency-chic, and so the choice of the ironic and lascivious aesthetic, from “I love NY” t-shirts to wonderbra billboards.
Ah but the province of the truly modern is the sans-serif, surely you agree? Helvetica, Ariel, Calibri; need I say more? These are the aesthetic choices of the digital age. We live in a time when the clean line is godly. Electronic simplicity, iPhone elegance, non-vintage vintage. This is the choice of the coverflow-vogue, Darwin-praising agnostic, SEO-minded, progressive environmentalist hipster entrepreneur.