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A messy optical process
Iris Cuppen
17 June 2021
published in Issue Zero – Opuscule

To serif or sans-serif? One of the oldest discussions on type and reading eventually comes down to a binary question. Go Roman or go Grotesk? The serif is recognisable by the little strokes attached to the end of larger lines of a letter (take a closer look at the « T’s » in this text). These strokes—serifs—are, in fact, the result of ancient technological flaws: the outlines of Roman letters were first painted onto stone before they were carved into it. Paint naturally flares at stroke ends and corners, creating serifs in the carved-out letters. (The word possibly comes from the Dutch word schreef, meaning « line » or stroke; schreef is also the past tense of the verb « to write »). We have carried serifs with us, from stone to metal to code; our neural networks are now so used to these shapes that reading them feels both natural and pleasant.

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