But serifs don’t die easily. By 1896, they staged a comeback with the Art Nouveau movement, which celebrated “floriated madness.” The movement so infuriated the typographer Adolf Loos that, in 1908, he wrote an essay titled “Ornament and Crime” declaring that the “evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.” For Loos, as Heller and Anderson note in their book on New Ornamental Type, superfluous decoration was not merely a waste of designer’s time—it was downright immoral.
Despite the warnings of fire and brimstone, serifs made yet another comeback decades later—this time in pre-depression America, through the Arts and Crafts movement. William Morris, a British textile designer, had a novel antidote to the austerity of industrialization: He combined modern printing methods with traditional art. Serifs played a key role in the feeling of traditionalism he sought to invoke.
Yet the damage was done. The Bauhaus movement, while retaining some decorative elements as a way to escape definition and stereotyping, rejected ornamentation as a relic of an older order. Modernism was born, and it hinged on the belief that minimalism enables the cleanest communication. Slowly, the memory of the connection between the calligrapher’s wrist and the typographer’s lead began to fade.
The “grotesque” sans serif of the Victorians has come to represent the approachable mainstream.
Postwar movements sought, like the Romantics before them, to emphasize the foolishness of the elites. One particular line of attack was on the serif. What had once seemed ornate and the very definition of “civilized,” harking back to the grand Roman Empire, was now viewed as chintzy and messy. Designers sought to distance themselves from the aggression and destruction of European imperialism, which was embodied in the serif.
The “neatening” of type was a way to clean up the mistakes of history. However, this movement was at first restricted to posters and public signage. Technologically, the pen had been replaced by the typewriter. Leaning on fonts like Courier, most typewritten material in the early-mid 20th century possessed pronounced serifs.
Then, within a few decades, came the computer — and a man named Steve Jobs.
As a student, Jobs famously noticed that posters on his college campus were beautifully lettered. Asking around, he discovered that the signage originated in the high-quality calligraphy classes offered on campus. He decided to study calligraphy, which eventually resulted in “fonts” for Apple’s word processing software. The initial six fonts that came with the Apple II have now given way to millions, with “foundries”—illustration and design studios—that employ illustrators and graphic designers to focus solely on producing electronic typefaces for various media.
Beginning with Jobs, computers enabled a dizzying level of typographic innovation. Word processors continue to blur the line between design and illustration.