Why Won’t Helvetica Go Away?

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Update: Hours after the publication of this article Indra Kupferschmid published an article in which she corrected some of the facts presented in the original article and provided an opposite view on the issue. We republished Indra’s article1 to correct the factual errors, with her permission of course. Make sure to check the corrections before reading this article.—Ed.

The other day someone sent me a link to a website with the preposterous title of “The 100 Best Typefaces of All Time2”. Topping the chart was Helvetica, and that stirred my ire. I dismissed the list because it was based on marketing figures from one source, FontShop, coupled with the opinions of half a dozen mostly Berlin-based typographers, but I was still incensed.

Photo3

When it comes to, say, boxers, you can handicap the various athletes in the ring and predict that Muhammad Ali would beat Jack Johnson or Jim Corbett and that, therefore, he is number one, but a lot of other factors come to bear on your decision: sentimentality, the fact that Ali is acknowledged (by people like me, with no real knowledge of the sport) to be “The Greatest”; he has name recognition, and so on. But how do you evaluate a typeface? Is it just based on its widespread use? Or its suitability to the subject at hand? Ease of reading? Familiarity?

Photo4
Bust portrait of Muhammad Ali by Ira Rosenberg, from the World Journal Tribune. (Image: Library of Congress5)

For Helvetica, an explanation of its history helps to explain its longevity. Most typeface designs are the result of fashion or changes in taste; some are technologically driven. When iron printing presses were introduced around 1800, sharper, crisper types such as Bodoni and Didot were created. When laser printers came along in the mid-1980s, with their bitmapped fonts, students in Holland began producing typefaces that reflected the quality of the poor printing. Letters in Studie (Eindhoven, Lecturis, 1983) shows examples by Jelle Bosma and Petr van Blokland designed on a 40-pixel grid. Emigré, an early digital type foundry, produced Oakland (1985) and other lo-res types for the market.

So, fashion and technology, which are ever evolving as they become obsolete, are as influential on type design and typography as on any other medium, from dressmaking to car design. When printing technology became so good that uniformly smooth, crisp faces were the norm, designers longed for the grit and noise found in old letterpress posters and started a fad for trashed6 and distressed7 faces. But like everything else that is fashionable, typefaces retire to await a future recall.

The art of reviving typefaces began in the Victorian era, and among the choices of contemporaries, the original Caslon is a model that has endured. In the 20th century, typeface revivals seemed to outstrip new designs. Production accelerated as two big companies, Linotype and Monotype, tussled in the field. The head of typeface development at the British Monotype Company, Stanley Morison, said, “Type today does not require inspiration so much as investigation.” He led the charge into the past with modern versions of the types Aldus (Bembo), Fournier, Bell, Walbaum and others. Linotype (under George W. Jones) countered with superior versions of Granjon (ironically named as it is the best Garamond copy of the metal era), Baskerville and Janson.

At that time, two sans-serif types introduced in the late 1920s dominated the market for advertising. These were Monotype Gill Sans and Futura, of the German Bauer foundry. Suddenly there was a rush to create, imitate or revive sans-serif types. The Berthold foundry of Berlin dusted off the matrices for its Akzidenz Grotesk (1898), while their rivals, the Haas Type Foundry of Basel, decided to rework Schelter Grotesk, which had been issued by the Leipziger Schelter & Giesecke foundry in 1880. This became Neue Haas Grotesk in 1957, which was then picked up by the Stempel foundry in Frankfurt. It wanted to identify the type with the emerging popularity of Swiss graphic design and chose the ancient Roman name of Switzerland, Helvetia, and so Helvetica was reborn in 1961.

Photo8
Max Meidinger’s original 1957 design of Helvetica (from the Haas Typefoundry brochure “From Helvetica to Haas Unica,” Münchenstein, ca 1979).

The reason for the popularity of Gill Sans and Futura was that they turned their back on these Grotesks of the 19th century, which were worn out. Eric Gill took a new approach: pen-made humanist calligraphy was the basis for his type (he had also worked on the drawings for the London Underground alphabet with his mentor, Edward Johnston). These letters made more coherent word shapes and were easier to read than Grotesks. But Gill’s type standardized the distinct curled-tail “l” and shed-roofed figure “1” of Johnston’s design, which led to confusion with the capital “I” (a problem in many sans serifs).

Photo9
The third (digital) version of Edward Johnston’s proprietary London Underground typeface, photographed on the Piccadilly Line in 1983.

Paul Renner’s Futura was designed to reflect the new machine age, with simple geometric shapes, straight lines and circles that gave it a cool Art Deco elegance. Both types are now imbued with a lot of cultural baggage, so Gill suggests the British Broadcasting Corporation and Futura has become nostalgic shorthand for the era of streamlining.

Photo10
Paul Renner’s Futura Light, 1928, from a Bauer type foundry brochure (New York, ca 1930)

But in the 1930s, these two types were immensely popular in Europe and North America, and the other founders had to respond quickly. Returning to the 19th century should have been out of the question for the competition, except that the German foundries had been flattened in the Second World War and were slow to retool.

Helvetica became a national brand, an identity for the popular “Swiss style” of typography of Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann, which quickly spread as their well-indoctrinated students took the new look back to Yale and other American schools. From BMW, Bayer and Lufthansa in Germany, the Helvetica look spread to Bank of America, Knoll, Panasonic, Target, Crate&Barrel, JC Penney, Mattel, American Airlines, Sears, Microsoft and other11 corporations.

In the late ’90s Microsoft was selling a million copies of Word each month and gave away 14 fonts with its program. Its knock-off of Helvetica is called Arial. Linotype had taken over Stempel, and then Haas, and so consolidated its ownership of Helvetica and many of the clones. The stark sans-serif look that had first symbolized revolution in the hands of Russian typographers in 1917 became institutionalized as the bland face of corporate smugness.

Photo12
Swiss-style poster for the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, 1972. (Courtesy of Frances Butler)

As it spread over the graphic landscape like melted runny processed cheese, I suggested renaming it Velveetica. Its blandness and general horridness oozed out on all sides. It was neutral, but also tasteless and was taking over typography. Nothing could stop it as designers unquestioningly copied one another in adopting it. The idea that it was more modern than Gill Sans or Futura has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.

Photo13
A card advertising Helvetica filmsetting (Bauer Alphabets, New York, no date)

After the adoption of the Swiss style internationally, another event caused the persistence of Helvetica: the arrival of the personal computer. Apple could fit only a few types into the memory of its LaserWriter printer driver. Times and Helvetica were decided by executive fiat (based on their popularity at the time); Symbol and Courier were required by the operating system. Then, a team of experts was called in to choose more types: Palatino, Zapf Chancery, Avant Garde, Bookman and Century Schoolbook were picked by committee. One of the committee, Sumner Stone, told me, “In retrospect they seem pretty strange and random. … Times and Helvetica were redrawn, and with Helvetica the narrow and oblique came free because it was just an algorithm.” With only garbage to pick from, there was a visual blight of Times, Helvetica and Palatino in the early days of “desktop publishing,” which lasted well beyond their sell-by date.

Photo14
Helvetica brochure Frankfurt (D Stempel AG, no date)

Speaking of which, the US government (which uses Helvetica for tax forms and other official printed matter) specified it for “generic packaging” in (wouldn’t you guess?) 1984 (see top of page). Everyone blindly accepts Helvetica, most of them we assume because they follow leaders like lemmings, but why do they extoll its worth? Is it a great international hoodwinking conspiracy, like the Emperor’s New Clothes?

In 1993, Robert Norton, who was a Microsoft bagman, invited prominent people in the field of typography to contribute to a book entitled Types Best Remembered / Types Best Forgotten (London & Kirkland, Washington, Parsimony Press) and write about their favorite and least favorite typefaces.

Peter Karow (who created the Ikarus program for type digitization) wrote about Helvetica: how he had digitized it in various clones throughout the 1970s and 1980s as competing companies put out their own similar versions. It was his favorite, it seems, but with reservations. In 1993, he relates, Stefan Rögener told him that “90% of creative directors use Helvetica, Futura, Garamond and Baskerville. Give me a pistol!”

Photo15
The Ikarus program allowed designers to alter their Bembo clone into a Helvetica clone, although why would they? (From “Ikarus for Typefaces in Digital Form” by Peter Karow, URW Unternehmensberatung Karow Rubow Weber GHBH, Hamburg, 1983)

I took the opportunity to name Helvetica my least favorite type and wrote a reasoned (I thought) explanation of why it is not a good typeface: “The letters are square and squat and don’t communicate with their neighbors. … There is more internal space in the counters than around the words, creating ugly and standoffish silhouettes.” The point I was making is that, to operate legibly, words have to have a visual balance between internal and external white space, a kind of aerodynamic flow. It’s a physical fact, and types like Syntax or Frutiger work far better than Helvetica, which remains self-enclosed and constipated-looking.

Legibility operates not at the level of characters but of ideational units. Adults read clusters of letters, such as “the,” as a single unit, or their brains group clusters of characters to speed comprehension. The better these units cohere, the more legible they will be (assuming that speed and comprehension are goals). Typefaces that have many characters that resemble one another (such as “a” “s” and “e” in Helvetica) impede the reader, as does the fact that the enclosed letter shapes prevent them from fusing to make more cohesive units. These are scientifically established aspects of letterform design and should take Helvetica out of the equation for anyone looking to create a legible message. Communication is a science and doesn’t really have much to do with aesthetics, other than the reader’s comfort via familiarity.

Photo16
Static versus dynamic letterforms

In this illustration from “Syntax-Antiqua, eine serifenlose Linearschrift auf neuer Basis (Syntax, a Sans Serif on a New Basis)” (Gebrauchsgraphik, 1970), Erich Schulz-Anker (Manager of Typographic Development at D Stempel AG) contrasts the mechanical Didone-Helvetica development with a humanist line running from Garaldes (i.e. Sabon) to Syntax, designed by Hans Eduard Meier and released by Stempel in 1969. He contrasts them as “static” versus “dynamic” forms. I would further characterize them as illegible versus legible forms. See how the letters on the left stand apart and isolated from one another, while those in the dynamic group relate to their neighbors.

Of course, most lay people can’t tell one sans serif from another. When people say they prefer Helvetica to Arial because the latter is a bad copy, I ask if there’s a difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper, and, more to the point, would you honestly feed either to your kids?

Adrian Frutiger, “Mister Univers” himself, tried to improve on Helvetica with the Univer series, begun in 1954 (and he succeeded, causing the Helvetians to expand their family of weights in response), but then, in his maturer years, he turned his back on Univers to design the family that bears his own name (Frutiger, 1976). With the Internet, Helvetica has retrenched and, despite the Arial clone that mimics it (see “The Scourge of Arial17” by Mark Simonson), gotten new legs as a font that stays the same cross-platform. If you use any Adobe product, you cannot avoid Helvetica.

18
Comparison of four sans serifs from “My Fonts”

Everything about Helvetica is repellant: from its uptight aura to its smug, splendid isolation. How it persists in the face of such brilliant alternatives as Frutiger and Syntax defies logic.

Mike Parker, who oversaw production of Helvetica at Linotype, wrote, “In the sixties by cutting it for the Linotype we made Helvetica the Swiss sans serif of choice across most of the world.” But, he adds ruefully (in Types Best Forgotten), “Never again should we have to endure quite such dulling repetition of any single design.”

Photo19
First showing of American Helvetica (Mergenthaler Linotype, New York, no date)

I sincerely believe that people (even designers20) who say Helvetica is legible are simply confused. It’s pervasive, certainly. We see it everywhere — that’s why we think we can read Helvetica — but it is not nearly as legible as, say, Frutiger or Syntax, for the reasons I have stated above. Syntax is not merely a legible typeface: Syntax is beautiful, it’s sublime, it sings. Well, you argue, Helvetica is neutral. Yes, Helvetica is neutral, but it also symbolizes blandness and conformity and… well, sorry Swiss people, boredom.

Photo21
Helvetica-Kursiv flyer from D Stempel advertising Linotype-Matrizen in 6 to 10 point (Frankfurt, no date)

In 2007, Gary Hustwit made a documentary film about the typeface in which various talking heads exuded enthusiasm for the wretched mess that is Helvetica. The corporations have agreed, and the bland new world feared by Huxley, Orwell and other writers of the last century is one step nearer.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/12/07/helvetica-being-fogged-font-aversion-hinders-sight/
  2. 2 http://www.100besttypefaces.com/
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/generica.jpg
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Muhammad_Ali.jpg
  5. 5 http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c15435/
  6. 6 http://www.p22.com/sherwoodtype/ruffcut.html
  7. 7 http://p22.com/ihof/americanchromatic.html
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/1957_Hel.jpg
  9. 9 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/LondonUnderground.jpg
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/futura3.jpg
  11. 11 http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/03/40-excellent-logos-created-with-helvetica/
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/pratt72.jpg
  13. 13 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/bauer_hel.jpg
  14. 14 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/stempel2a.jpg
  15. 15 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ikarus.jpg
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/syntax.jpg
  17. 17 http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/03/40-excellent-logos-created-with-helvetica/
  18. 18 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/typo_comparison.jpg
  19. 19 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/americanLino.jpg
  20. 20 http://www.logic52.com/2011/08/04/why-do-designers-love-helvetica/
  21. 21 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/helKursiv.jpg

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Alastair Johnston is a scholar, teacher and letterpress printer. He is the author of "Transitional faces," a forthcoming biography of Richard Austin, cutter of the Bell and Scotch Roman types and his son Richard T. Austin, a wood engraver. He is co-editor of William E. Loy's "Nineteenth-century American designers & engravers of type," and most recently has produced "Typographical tourists: tales of the tramp printer," from his Poltroon Press based in Berkeley, California.

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  1. 1

    Nothing like a good Helvetica article to double the average comment rate on Smashing.

    It was about time!

    3
  2. 52

    C’mon. It’s not like we’re talking about Comic Sans here. Let hate be placed where it truly belongs.

    0
  3. 103

    Vitaly Friedman (editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine)

    December 8, 2012 12:00 am

    Dear readers,

    Thank you very much for your helpful feedback. Alastair’s article indeed contained some errors which we corrected as quickly as possible after the article was published. The article went through the “traditional” Smashing quality control and was reviewed by two reviewers who haven’t spotted the mistakes that Indra has kindly pointed out in her article. With Indra’s kind permission we republished the article to make sure that the mistakes are corrected, and that the article is properly adjusted. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused and we will do our best to make sure that these mistakes won’t happen again.

    And again, thank you very much for your constructive criticism and feedback. We will make sure to not let you down next time.

    3
  4. 154

    Helvetica is considered the most neutral font. It is used on most street and info signs still today. It was popular in the 60’s precisely because it did not jump out, it was pure as wind driven snow, and uncontaminated by style, theme, or pop culture. Some designers at the time thought that Helvetica and couple of other fonts is the only ones you really need for every kind of design. The backlash to Helvetica started in 80’s, and today everybody uses what ever everybody uses. I personally like Avenir, but don’t mind Helvetica for it’s form.

    0
  5. 205

    Design shouldn’t be confused with legibility. Calling Syntax more beautiful than Helvetica is just saying you prefer legibility over design. The school of font designers that prefer legibility aren’t necessarily designers with good taste, they are just font designers that know how to make legible fonts. They’ve thought themselves to find beauty in legibility because that is good font-design to them, while in fact beauty is found in good design in general. That’s why Helvetica won’t go away.

    0
  6. 256

    There are straightforward reasons why Helvetica is so popular. It is a neutral sans face. It is well drawn. It is ubiquitously available.

    The redrawing of Helvetica in the eighties as Helvetica Neue is magnificent piece of work. Individually the letterforms are balanced and beautiful. As an alphabet it is coherent and consistent. It displays a gentle and understated elegance. It is like an expert pianist accompanying a vocalist so that what you hear is the musicality of the singer and the song, and not the piano. It does not taint a message with its own appearance. But it’s a pity that not everybody has learned how to use is properly. And it’s foolish or worse to think because of that Helvetica is bad and ‘should go away’.

    0
  7. 307

    I can understand the science behind your argument about the confusing lowercase L but I honestly don’t see any other solid arguments here. “The letters are square and squat…” sounds like your subjective opinion.

    You also say that “Legibility operates not at the level of characters but of ideational units. ” but you provide no proof. I know this isn’t an essay, but I’ve heard this argument so many times and never actual been shown where this idea comes from. Perhaps designers made it up?

    EDIT:

    I felt so bothered by this post that I went ahead and did some more reading for actual evidence. My references are sketchy at best (one of them is on a Microsoft site!) but a simple search on google turns up evidence that WE DO NOT recognize word meanings from word shapes. This is an outdated idea based on research that has been discarded by cognitive psychologists since the 1980s.

    http://www.microsoft.com/typography/ctfonts/wordrecognition.aspx
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouma

    At least you inspired me to read more since I’m sick and tired of people’s opinions being passed off as science.

    0
  8. 358

    Legibility Scientist

    December 8, 2012 4:30 am

    It’s not that Helvetica is perfect. It’s just that every other typeface is less.

    Fixing Helvetica?

    Start by adding weights between the available weights.
    Remove the peculiarities – you know what they are.
    Make wider versions (x wider than y) as opposed to uniform line width.
    Make the curves cut deeper, i.e. make them thinner where they connect, to make it less bloated; allow it to breathe.

    Focus on solutions, not complaining.

    -1
  9. 460

    I hate type rants and the threads they spawn. They tend to be full of factual mistakes and useless subjective opinion. However, both Alastair Johnston and Indra Kupferschmid, both of whom I respect, have appealed to me to get involved in this dispute so I will add a few words. Alastair is one of the best type historians we have today, but one would never know it from his rant against Helvetica. (He is currently completing a book on the English punchcutter Richard Austin and has previously written or edited books on 19th century American punchcutters, the literary content of type specimens, tramp printers, vernacular lettering, contemporary type designers and more.) Unfortunately, his views on Helvetica—although full of merit in my opinion—have been damaged by the numerous factual mistakes he made. Although Indra has fully and accurately documented these mistakes, I don’t think they materially affect his contention that Helvetica is wrongly described as the “best” typeface of all time simply on the basis of its popularity. And his errors, even if embarrassing, do not undercut his claim that Helvetica’s reputation as the “most legible typeface” is undeserved.

    There are many sans serif typefaces that are more readable—a more accurate term than legible—than Helvetica. Test this out for yourself. Take a block of text and set it at 10/12 x 24p (or similar text type specs) in Helvetica and several other sans serif typeface. I would suggest comparing it to Akzidenz Grotesk, Univers, Frutiger, Arial, Myriad, MetaPlus and Vialog. (I would leave out Syntax because it is a fundamentally different kind of sans serif than these faces are.) Look at it on screen and also print it out. You will find that you can “read” Helvetica with not too much extra effort. But, if you are honest, I think you will find that at least one, if not several, of those other faces is clearer. I did such a test for myself earlier today and my personal ranking is: 1. Frutiger 55, 2. Myriad roman, 3. MetaPlus Book, 4. Vialog regular, 5. Univers 55, 6. Neue Helvetica H55, 7. Akzidenz Grotesk, and 8. Arial.

    Even if you agree with me that Helvetica is not the most readable, that does not preclude you from loving it or using it. There are millions of people who feel that way. And there are millions of people in the world who love McDonald’s hamburgers and Coca-Cola. I am not one of them. And, like Alastair, I too dislike Helvetica. I find it boring, overly used, and dated. It reminds me of the 1970s: polyester clothing, Richard Nixon, disco music and interchangeable graphic identities for such companies and institutions as American Airlines, Knoll, JC Penny, the Container Corporation of America, NASA, the United States National Parks Service and the MIT Press.

    I prefer Frutiger—at 9/12 it is my default on-screen face and document face—and Syntax. I do not find either of them dated. (What era?) But they are not for everyone and I am glad about that. If they were, I might find myself detesting them.

    5
  10. 511

    I stopped reading when you asked “if there’s a difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper”

    A Big Mac has two hamburger patties and comes without tomatoe, ketchup or mayonese but with McDonald’s special sauce. Obviously — beyond any reasonable doubt — the whopper is not a copy of the Big Mac.

    The right question could have been if there is a difference between a Big Mac and a Big King as those are relatively similar. Interestingly the Big King isn’t offered in the US (http://www.bk.com/en/us/menu-nutrition/lunch-and-dinner-menu-202/fire-grilled-burgers-220/index.html) but in Germany (http://www.burgerking.de/menu/big-king#ref%3A%2Fmenu%23layerOpen) so I understand why you didn’t ask that.

    So the point is: your research looks really sloppy (the burgers are just an example) and you loose all credibility in my eyes. A little more care…

    2
    • 562

      You “loose” all credibility with your misspelled reply. :) Who cares if there’s a difference between a Whopper and a Big Mac. They’re both dead animal sandwiches. You missed Mr. Johnston’s entire point, in any case. Whoppers and Big Macs are not good food; and Helvetica and Arial are not good fonts. (Arial is actually worse than Helvetica, but I have no opinion whether a Big Mac is better than a Whopper or vice versa.)

      2
  11. 613

    Futura is better than any other typeface ever created. To prove it I will burn all books written in other typefaces and reset them in Futura. No more arguments!

    0
  12. 664

    Calligraphy is not only based on tradition, but also on cultural aspects. Gothic script responded to space economy. In the same way, typography responds not only to calligraphic tradition, but also cultural aspects.

    Since 50s/60s Helvetica has become not only a symbol, but also a new typographic standard. In popular culture, Helvetica is the basis of sans-serif typography.

    Of course sans-serif are not only grotesks, but we can’t understimate the importance of these types being a rupture in typographic tradition and bringing a whole new way of understanding type design, pursuing universality through geometric shapes avoiding the characteristics of handwritten calligraphy.

    As far as Helvetica is still culturally relevant, it won’t just “go away”.

    0
  13. 715

    Helvetica is a good font for people who never heard of ‘ligatures’

    3
  14. 766

    the whole idea of a “best typeface” of all time is as ridiculous as asking “what is the best colour of all time” or “what is the best layout of all time” —what is “best” is usually based on the requirements of a particular project, and the constraints a designer may have to work within.

    2
  15. 817

    To me the question about choice of typefaces can be compared to the question a guitar player might ask himself what electric guitar to choose:
    – for a really skilled one it doesn’t matter as long as it is an instrument of professional quality, he will always sound like himself and find the right way to play in order to make his audience happy.
    – fashions come and go but in the end what remains is Les Paul or Stratocaster.
    – Telecaster, SG plus all the new kids on the block (from Flying V and Explorer to PRS and JEM, etc.) spice it up once in a while, but if taken away they won’t be missed as much as Les Paul or Stratocaster.

    Helvetica is the Les Paul of sans serif typefaces. Not quite sure what’s the Stratocaster. Thesis?

    Personally I prefer the Les Paul — in music as in typography — and hardly ever miss anything, and neither does my audience. It’s a very good tool, you know …

    (apologies to those of you who don’t get the metaphor because they are no guitar nerds)

    0
  16. 868

    I am by no means a typography expert, but I take offense to being called “confused” simply because I have a different opinion from you.

    If we are to believe Eric Gill’s assertion that “Legibility, in practice, amounts simply to what one is accustomed to,” then Helvetica certainly gets legibility points for being “everywhere.” That is not, of course, to say that we should not make attempts to improve on whatever is popular, as Gill goes on to clarify, but my point is that legibility is not absolute, certainly not in the case of Helvetica. It’s a spectrum. To call people “confused” because they disagree with you is obnoxious and insulting and should have no place-even in an opinion piece-at your magazine.

    -1
    • 919

      I doubt whether Gill would have seriously defended Helvetica on the basis that it’s everywhere. When he said “in practice,” he’s merely talking about what people get used to, not what is aesthetically superior or more pleasing. What Mr. Johnston meant by people being “confused” is that people confuse the ubiquity of Helvetica with its inherent worth. It’s just not so. To my eyes, word by word it’s easily readable, but completely dead. Your eyes have a lot of work to do to move to the next word. It certainly doesn’t facilitate fast reading.

      0
  17. 970

    When we can create a technology without constraints of the pixel and present the structure on the monitor or other screen configuration without the our limitations of display any typeface. Then is the time to criticize the design of a typeface. the digital world is not printing on paper or other substrate the maintain the characteristics of the ink leaving the metal type. When the electronic media can present type with the fidelity of ink on paper not cropping edges and curves to match the shape of the pixels then this conversation would be come important.

    Display designers and engineers to the breech!

    0
  18. 1021

    This article is hysterical and bizzare. Helvetica cares nothing for your opinion.

    1
  19. 1072

    Pieter Hartzenberg

    December 12, 2012 7:52 pm

    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/themes/smashingv4/stylesheets/main.min.css

    body, input, textarea, button {
    font-family: “Proxima Nova Regular”,”Helvetica Neue”,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;
    font-weight: 400;
    font-style: normal;
    }

    Helvetica <3

    -3
  20. 1123

    I am not in the favor to ditch the Helvetica. Off course it has its own place and value. Its not the solution for anything to remove it. If we are really about to improve our fonts we should try and build new fonts and set them to default. I know we have so many but its doesn’t mean we should remove the on which is versatile one and huge use of it.

    -1
  21. 1174

    Firstly – people seem to forget that the Helvetica we now know as a default font was more a triumph of marketing and distribution than its technical formulation, and as Indra Kupferschmid points out, its dissemination around the world was also facilitated by corporate merger and acquisition. In other words, it got lucky. It was the right typeface from the right foundry at the right time with the right connections. It grew to be a very big fish in what was a far smaller pool.

    Secondly – the terms ‘most widely-licensed’ or ‘best-selling’ should not be conflated with ‘most popular’ or ‘the best’ or ‘number one on the list’ – unless the listing criteria are explicilty about the sales, and this is a weakness of the FontShop list of ‘the 100 best typefaces’. For a more nuanced and independent view, look for Paul Shaw’s own TDC list the ‘top 100 types of all time?’ at http://www.tdc.org/reviews/typelist.html – and please note the question mark in the title.

    Thirdly – what Paul Shaw said; test every typeface for yourself by doing comparison setting; it’s not hard, sometimes it’s even pleasurable and yields unexpected results and new discoveries. That certainly happened to me when a book publisher once asked me to set the running text of a 200-page novel in (guess what?) Helvetica…

    Finallly – paragraph seven above brings out my own inner pedant, so I’ll chip in on a couple of tiny specifics; the drawings for the London Underground were Edward Johnston’s work alone – Eric Gill’s contribution to that project was to attend an initial meeting only. Had he stayed, he might have learnt something to his advantage. Unlike Johnston’s underground lettering, Gill’s eponymous sans serif didn’t standardise with either a head serif on the numeral one, or a foot serif on the lowercase “l”, with the result that both of them can be easily confused with the capital “I” and therefore Gill Sans can still make less coherent word shapes than its predecessors. This argument is illustrated at http://www.typotheque.com/articles/re-evaluation_of_gill_sans

    1
  22. 1225

    Yah! Let’s do whatever this blog says to do, yah!

    1
  23. 1276

    ROFL, this page is… Helvetica Neue

    1
  24. 1327

    Respectfully, I found very few valid arguments in this article. A quick (and in my opinion, biased and inaccurate) review of Helvetica’s history is no reason to discourage its use.
    It’s true that Helvetica has been extremely over-used to create heartless identities, and may be a quick way out for many poor designers. It could also be debated that Helvetica is not the most readable typeface and there are solid arguments to defend this (especially on text size). Yet, the apparent hatred towards Helvetica seems to cloud every argument. Saying that it’s “repellant” is just a personal appreciation. Repellant in terms of readability? of proportions? What is the evidence and funding behind such statement? Frutiger was trying to improve Helvetica? Where is proof or argument of that?
    Sorry, but this is a very weak article, even as an opinion one.

    0
  25. 1378

    I’m sorry, but I have to agree, this is just weak. No clear line of thought, just googled facts and some really weak and blunt arguments.

    Helvetica will outlive us all, and the quick brown fox will always jump over that lazy dog. Syntax is one ugly b____, by the way.

    1
  26. 1429

    I love you guys. more than the article, I can get by reading the comments.
    I don’t get the association of Helvetica with “smug”. It’s a safe, stylish typeface, and that’s that. To add to it, Helvetica now boasts of a successful history, which in marketing terms means another era of resurgence. In short: it’s around now, and it’ll be around in the future as well.

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  27. 1480

    helvetica has no heart, personality or guts. (some what kidding :)

    i’m actually quite torn over helvetica. my problem with helvetica is its neutrality. i do love its simplicity, but hate how ubiquitous its become across so many different industries. i feel its so easily glossed over – its just there, it lacks a presence.

    0
  28. 1531

    What I don’t like about this article are the comments about legibility. Legibility is not just determined by word shape, but by the readers experience with a type face. If someone spent there whole life reading words set in Comic Sans and then one day someone gave them text set in Garamond, the text set in Comic Sans would be more legible. That being said, anyone who has studied legibility at a slight degree of depth would know that we understand very little about legibility. To basically come out and say Helvetica isn’t legible is not a well informed statement.

    0
  29. 1582

    Meanwhile, the rest of us sane people stare in wonderment (or maybe point and laugh) as overeducated nutjobs tussle over fonts.

    1
  30. 1633

    People favoring ‘Helvetica’ are completely clueless, but this is of a no surprise. They’ve never had the chance to see anything outside their confined MS and Adobe world.

    0
  31. 1684

    Cheap MAC Cosmetics

    November 4, 2014 5:44 pm

    The following time I learn a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as a lot as this one. I mean, I do know it was my choice to learn, but I actually thought youd have one thing fascinating to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you could repair if you happen to werent too busy searching for attention.

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