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

    “In the late ’70s Microsoft was selling a million copies of Word each month and gave away 14 fonts with its program.”

    I think you might mean the late ’90s.

    10
    • 2

      Favorite quote….
      “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.”

      _ Dayum_

      Aint that the truth.

      1
  2. 3

    Helvetica, if nobody hates you, you are doing something boring.

    45
  3. 4

    I’m convinced, I’ll ditch Helvetica, Arial and, possibly, Times… but none of my word processors have Syntax or Frutiger which you extol. I’m not the type to pay for a font. Where do I go from here?

    6
  4. 11

    I always find articles like this interesting to read, but unconvincing in proving to me that I should not use Helvetica as a font. I am not Helvetica fanboy but it has its place just like Futura and Fruitiger.

    For the record I hate Syntax… I doubt I will write an article about it, I simply don’t use it.

    36
    • 12

      Helvetica is a perfectly usable font. The crying about it basically comes down to folks who don’t like it because it’s popular. Like a rock band that got too successful and lost it’s ‘alternative’ appeal to ‘elite’ music listeners.

      But it’s popular for a reason. Because it’s attractive and always readable no matter what you do with it. Helvetica is never going to be an especially creative choice, but that’s not really what it’s for.

      25
  5. 14

    I don’t really understand the hyperbole and hand-wringing hysteria of your post.

    Frutiger and Syntax make noise for themselves. They say, “Look at me!” They are visible and therefore easily dated. Their anachronistic characteristics, however much they may add to legibility, scream, “I’ve been designed. Woo hoo!” They are beautiful fonts, no doubt.

    But Helvetica is sort of invisible. To say it’s illegible is silly; maybe it’s not as legible as the other typefaces you cite, but it’s a damn legible font compared to most of the typefaces out there. Helvetica’s lack of style, if you will, makes it timeless, much more so than most other typefaces.

    You’re looking for a typeface to make its case, to have a voice, to look beautiful and get noticed. But for many of us, the content is what matters, and Helvetica lets those other design elements shine. If I want the viewer to notice the content, I don’t use a font that will distract them. If I want them to notice the type, then I might make one of your choices.

    104
    • 15

      This.

      Helvetica is no where near my favourite sans-serif (although I actually use Helvetica Neue, for what it’s worth) but it has its place. It’s a font that allows you to apply personality, rather than extract it.

      9
      • 16

        I agree. I’m a bit of a font geek, and for a number of the newsletters I edit, I still like Helvetica Neue. If being popular is the problem, so be it. When I need to be artsy, I simply use something else.

        5
    • 17

      It does actually have some legibility issues. It’s very bold (not the weight, but the actual character of the typeface), and therefore the apertures are pinched and counters tight. Each glyph is almost a separate unit, also, due the the closed apertures, and therefore it doesn’t flow very well in a text setting. The only reason people have a hard time hearing anything negative about it is because of its inexplicable popularity surge of 5 years ago or so, which burnt out a while ago but people have continued to glorify it. Yes, it’s a classic, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best. Anachronistic characteristics in using Frutiger? Using Helvetica is in and of itself is an anachronism. Leave it in 2008.

      2
      • 18

        If it was Frutiger that had this “inexplicable” (was it really “inexplicable?” Because I can think of many reasons…) popularity boom five years ago (I think you mean 40 or 45 years ago, really, or its resurgence in the 80s), you’d be saying, “Get rid of Frutiger! Helvetica is better.” This is the way of designers (and I’m one), to want everything to be new and different. And then new and different are just old and boring.

        Take the latest hipster trend of designing everything to look like it was from some other period: wood cut, letterpress, swirly serif. It’s cool, but it’s already looking dated. Hey, remember that cool bar in Brooklyn that 5 years ago had that artisinal whiskey and the cool saloon-style sign? Now that look is on t-shirts from Old Navy.

        But you know what, some things are timeless. Yes, Frutiger is anachronistic: when I see it, I know immediately what period it’s from, or what period the designer was trying to emulate in his or her quest for ‘unique and rebellious’ (which, like tattoos, is neither). Helvetica, because of it’s nearly 60-year tenure of near-constant usage, is more timeless, less anachronistic.

        Don’t get me wrong: I love typefaces. I love Frutiger. I love Syntax. And I love Helvetica. Each has their purpose and their place. But to argue Helvetica is illegible is nonsense, plain and simple.

        28
        • 19

          Yes, I expected the “hipster” jab, which is now the go-to adjective for anyone who has a different opinion or style than oneself. ;-) And yes, I meant 5 years ago. “Helvetica” was the design buzzword/bandwagon for 2005-2009 or thereabouts. If it’s hipster to design anything as though it’s from a different era, or if you don’t like Frutiger because it looks dated, then what about Helvetica, which screams 60′s modernism?

          All styles go in cycles. The modernist cycle will be around again, soon, but there myriads of options that can do the job as well or better than Helvetica. Look no further than Gotham if you want that neutral, strong typeface.

          3
      • 20

        Alastair Johnston

        December 7, 2012 8:39 pm

        thank you Joseph

        -6
    • 21

      You can argue for Helvetica’s legibility all you want but the general rule is that below 16pt stop using it and switch to Arial.

      -30
    • 22

      Well said Michael,

      There are very few type faces that manage to communicate their meaning without speaking in their own idiosyncratic voice. Helvetica is just one of those type faces that manage to do that and do it with a well balanced manner that places emphasis on the meaning of the words at the expense of a minor reduction in readability. But much in the same manner you may attempt to communicate with someone whom you don’t know but to whom you find it important to communicate clearly and concisely. With a steady tempo, a considerate tone and and at a volume which is perfectly audible.

      I think Helvetica is a remarkable type face and one of those elements of design that changes the way people think and has. Look at when it found a home in America, on the tail end of the 50′s where most adverts, brands and logos were shouting, silly and cloying. Of course it was adopted and overused, it filled a need by turning down the abrasive volume that the swelling advertising world was turning up… it was a revolution of it’s own in that context.

      That being said, for setting extensive amount of text I prefer something with a humanist touch that speaks with a more consistently natural voice. I have to support Helvetica though, it’s a work of art and as fine an achievement of design as the period of time it was created in has to offer and definitely has it uses even today.

      7
    • 23

      Absolutely spot on.
      It is all a matter of personal preference in the end but Helvetica is beautifully crafted and so very clear and useful.
      I love it.

      0
  6. 24

    Intresting read..but not convincing enough. I am not a Helvetica lover but I still feel it holds it value in design community.

    9
  7. 25

    Thumbs up for the truth!

    -6
  8. 26

    I appreciate the historical exposition, but otherwise this rant has little value. For someone who knows so much about typography you’re remarkably bad at removing form from cultural baggage. You may say that’s impossible to achieve, my response is that you should nevertheless strive for it if you ever want to be taken seriously as an authority on anything. Right now you’re just presenting the same baseless rant I read everywhere from typography hipsters who, unlike you, once sang the praises of Helvetica but now, like you, puff hard with empty pomposity about its alleged weaknesses.

    7
  9. 27

    I have a feeling that this article is merely the rantings of an artist who is angered that a simple typeface gets all the attention. In the examples provided, I couldn’t help but feel Helvetica is popular because, in the simplest terms: it just works better. It’s versatile.

    While it may be boring compared to other typefaces, Helvetica is among one of the very few that works in nearly every conceivable application: Smart phone GUIs, books, airports, etc.

    Anthropomorphizing of type aside, while I can appreciate the beautiful complexities of a symphony… sometimes a three-chord Rock n’ Roll song does a much better job at getting the point across.

    18
    • 28

      Alastair Johnston

      December 7, 2012 8:45 pm

      Manny it’s the unthinking use of Helvetica i am challenging. i think i showed the reasons for its longevity have to do with its history (timing) and position as technology evolved, more than any intrinsic value it has. I also believe my comments about the problems of legibility are valid.

      -4
  10. 29

    It usually takes just one person to say that the emperor has no clothes before people begin to see the truth. While Helvetica may have been great for the corporate giants of the 1960s and 70s, we need to move on from that previous utility and not enshrine facile type solutions into an unchanging typographic canon. Needless to say, I agree with the author.

    0
  11. 30

    Fair to say that Helvetica’s overused – but I just can’t agree that it’s ‘bad.’ When used right, I love Helvetica. When used wrong, I feel bad for it. It’s not Helvetica’s fault that people are boring. Helvetica just wants to do a good job, and we should respect that.

    17
    • 31

      Helvetica is a font that requires the designer to put creativity and style into it. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this. I think Helvetica is often used because it’s “easy” to use, but in reality, it takes a lot of thought for it to end up looking a lot better than many other typefaces. But when it does, it can look quite amazing.

      7
  12. 32

    It’s an opinion piece so we’ll all have differing opinions, but the roots of Helvetica are sound, however, I agree that it’s become this strange bastion of arty typographic snobbery. Some of your examples of Helvetica seem inaccurate. Regardless, Helvetica has a functional purpose, but it is NOT the only face, nor should typefaces that have “personality” be considered gaudy when used appropriately in specific designs. Most design is NOT timeless, bit is directly a product of marketing or pop culture or some other “time-centric” period were the design conveys a feel/style/mood. Helvetica is no more timeless in a design mimicking ancient Rome than of course Trajan, yet typo snobs (and I’ve met many in my design career) want you to think using anything else is a travesty. Good design is an amalgam of layout, typographic and clever aesthetics for that one design. I’ve seen a plethora of Helvetica design disaster too.

    As the mantra of most designers I know… you can never have too many fonts. ;)

    3
  13. 33

    Lots of successful brands have been built using helvetica. There are many ways to work with the font. See link. http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/03/40-excellent-logos-created-with-helvetica/

    0
    • 34

      This is what the argument is; it is overused with little knowledge about appropriateness. And some of these examples do Helvetica no favors (Target’s kerning).

      1
  14. 35

    ZOMG Syntax is so ugly man.

    5
  15. 36

    Yes, Helvetica is a bitch – but I still love her!

    1
  16. 38

    I copied and pasted this article into Word and changed the font to Helvetica.. It was too hard to read before then ;)

    12
  17. 39

    It is a great font. It always works. It is classy, modern and young at the same time. It is a great tool for designers. It won’t go away!!!

    0
  18. 40

    From the outside looking in, this seems to be really, really, REALLY over-thought. But that’s what you guys do.

    -2
    • 41

      I couldn’t agree more. I’m having a really hard time understanding the overall purpose of this article. But I’m a programmer, not a designer, so I’m sure there’s a lot of relevant data and information in this article that passionate designers can use. It’s like wine and cigars I suppose; some people can write entire books about it while the rest of us just sit by and wonder what all the fuss is about.

      3
      • 42

        Gave you an upvote for your honesty while disagreering. Wine and cigars one can live without but typography is necessary both in our personal lives and in commerce. In some cases good implementation of it is essential.

        Type is more like auto mechanics, if you will. The author´s point of view is of the enlightened contrarian, meant to agitate and to provoke. But he has a deeper, almost technical, message as well. And on that I agree with the author.

        The first time I read “Grid Systems in Graphic Design”, while in design school (of my own will, not part of the curriculum), I was stunned by the clarity and legibility of Univers vis-a-vis the prevailing favourite at the school, Helvetica. I still find Univers do be one of the most beautiful typefaces ever created.

        I say this without snobbery, with all sincerity, Univers has all the properties that people claim that Helvetica has.

        Helvetica has it´s use, but it requires very clearly and cleverly placed white space around it, since, as the author stated, text in Helvetica does look too uniform for human eyes and thought.

        Zach deserves an upvote for mentioning how much thought good implementation of Helvetica and it´s variants require. Perhaps that is part of it´s appeal. That Helvetica is the first typeface for many people that demands of them to think about design in a brand new context. In a much wider way.

        The use of white space in design was probably why Steve Jobs prefered Helvetica. Was that probably the underlining message of the 2007 movie that got lost? That when we mention Helvetica, we mean not a typeface, which has it´s unmistakable flaws, but a wider sense of layout that redefined design for many. That gave the first excitement of discovering simplicity in design, combining thoughtfulness and play

        Though Helvetica might symbolise simplicity, this typeface doesn´t define simplicity. There are now many better alternatives that do a far better job.

        10
        • 43

          I personally think that familiarity plays a big role in Helvetica’s lingering. Not just because of the possible associated feelings of familiarity, but also because we may be remembering Helvetica glyphs and thus learning to spot them better. We “know” that typeface, even if one is not a designer. And we feel comfortable with what we know, because we recognize it figuratively and literally. The article makes a different case, however. It gives us the context of what good typography is (mainly legibility) and uses that as a frame to critique helvetica. Familiriaty aside, Helvetica isn’t the best for readable text, even though it may look great in headers and logos.

          0
  19. 44

    Patrick Bateman: That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.
    David Van Patten: It’s very cool, Bateman, but that’s nothing. Look at this.
    Timothy Bryce: That is really nice.
    David Van Patten: Eggshell with Romalian type. What do you think?
    Patrick Bateman: Nice.
    Timothy Bryce: Jesus. That is really super. How’d a nitwit like you get so tasteful?
    Patrick Bateman: [Thinking] I can’t believe that Bryce prefers Van Patten’s card to mine.
    Timothy Bryce: But wait. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Raised lettering, pale nimbus. White.
    Patrick Bateman: Impressive. Very nice.
    David Van Patten: Hmm.
    Patrick Bateman: Let’s see Paul Allen’s card.
    Patrick Bateman: [Thinking] Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh, my God. It even has a watermark.
    Luis Carruthers: Is something wrong, Patrick? You’re sweating.

    21
  20. 45

    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.

    What?

    The LaserWriter (1985) used PostScript for type scaling from vectors – and the link you provide is to screen fonts*, not one made for a “low resolution” laser printer.

    300 DPI isn’t so bad that one needs to redesign type a whole lot, it turns out.

    (* From what they link to there: The Emperor, Universal, Oakland, and Emigre faces were originally designed in 1985 as bitmap fonts for use on the 72 dot per inch computer screen and dot matrix printer before high resolution outline fonts were available.

    That’s absolutely true, though PostScript fonts were in use, rendered to 72 dpi for the screen but printed at full resolution, starting in 1985 with the LaserWriter.)

    4
  21. 46

    Rufus T. Harlemberry

    December 6, 2012 9:17 pm

    I love reading typeface rants. I also like reading manifestos and watching bums fight.

    34
  22. 47

    I would have preferred more facts and examples to back this up, instead of statements claiming one is confused if he/she disagrees with you. I think Helvetica speaks for itself in rebuttal to this argument.

    Every typeface has its place, and this is one thing I’m sure we can all agree on. Don’t hate the type, hate the designer.

    7
  23. 48

    Nice post—caused me to think.

    One nice thing about Helvetica is that no single letter calls too much attention to itself. I’m looking at your Syntax example (“The boy is right!”) and all I can see is the g saying, “look at me, I’m different!”

    1
  24. 49

    Sex, Drugs, Helvetica Bold

    5
  25. 50

    I would have been interested to see your response to equal temperament in music if that was your field and you had been around at the time.

    I posted in response to someone quoting a phrase from this article:

    “Why won’t Windows go away? Everything about Windows is repellant: from its non-overlapping applications to its horrid colour scheme. How it persists in the face of such brilliant alternatives as OS/2 and BeOS defies logic.” (obviously hearkening back to an earlier time when overlapping windows weren’t… oh, we’re there again)

    But the explaination in both cases is easy:

    * it’s good enough
    * everyone knows it
    * it’s compatible with what already exists

    Don’t knock the last one. If you already have a body of work in Helvetica, then making another thing to match is easy. Changing fonts means redoing everything else as well – even if you have editable soft copies you’ll still have to proof to make sure the formatting didn’t screw up. That’s a cost. Changing isn’t free. Either that or having inconsistency, which isn’t free either.

    And don’t ignore the comfort of familiarity either. People prefer something they’ve seen many times before, because they know how it works – even if it’s not perfect. Even just knowing how two words will fit, one above the other, in terms of width and angles.

    Better has to be better enough to outweigh the natural forces which resist change. We need those forces or we would be forever switching around trying to micro-optimise.

    I don’t think you’ve made the case that Helvetica is that much worse, and the alternatives are that much better. In fact, I don’t think it matters if you’ve convinced yourself, or convinced me, because millions of people make font choices, and many choose Helvetica and achieve their goals despite (or maybe even because of) that choice.

    Helvetica remains because, for most people, it’s good enough that the switching friction outweighs the advantages of the competition.

    5
  26. 51

    “Communication is a science and doesn’t really have much to do with aesthetics, other than the reader’s comfort via familiarity.”

    This sentence is simply not true, and reflects the general confusion of this article.
    Communication is not a science, and it should be obvious that aesthetics do have a part to play in communication.
    This entire argument seems really incoherent to me.

    2
  27. 52

    I am a seventy-six year old graphic designer who in the early sixties had to mark-up my copy to match the ‘comp’ (comprehesive) from the Art Director and have the messager take it to the typesetter. Days later I got back the galleries (letterpress) and then hand kerned the Headlines and then pasted the type up on “mechanicals”. [sheets of illustration board with the type pasted (rubber cement) in place with zip or rubylith to indicate where photos (images) went] and these boards then went to the printer who photographed them and make the plates. I am a member of that Swiss Design movement which used Helvetica.

    It is very interesting that no typefaces have actually created for the computer and especially for the internet that have become common place. Why? Almost every font family used on the web is based on earlier historical model. We also have not got the terminology right for specifying type for the web. The pixel is not the same as the typographical point on which the sizes are based. The terms ‘em’ and ‘en’ are the width of the letter ‘M’ at each type size and ‘en’ is half of an ‘em’.

    So stop the complaints about how type concepts developed before the pixel and the web do not work. Design a new digital based typeface / font that meets your standards without using the various historical models as source material. Good Luck.

    12
  28. 53

    I like Comic Sans

    6
  29. 54

    Helvetica is great. Deal with it.

    -1
  30. 55

    Ok, I’ll admit it, Helvetica Neue is my “go to” font. Maybe I need an intervention.

    3
  31. 56

    Because it’s perfect.

    -4
  32. 57

    It’ll go away soon because designers are all hipsters with a “we’re so different because we all like the same random thing” attitude. Now that everyone uses Helvetica I’m sure someone will decide some random ass font is the new ‘cool’ font to use and before long all the hipster designers will follow suit and start using that ‘cool’ new font.

    We’ll just have to wait for someone to make a pabst blue ribbon font.

    -1
  33. 58

    Blame it to Microsoft by using helvetica too much lol …

    -4
  34. 59

    again this Helvetica.
    it is best to discard it believe me it works for none,

    -6
  35. 60

    We should stop using it. But it’s still a great typeface though. The Swiss spent some great effort to create such a well-cut type. It’s us designers that overused and made it a tasteless typeface. It’s fair that Helvetica make the classic … But we have to move on.

    1
  36. 61

    Helvetica rocks, come on people. My favorite font is “Dax: and “Freight Sans” beautiful fonts

    0
  37. 62

    Funny enough, the ad that runs in the beginning of the article says “designers, make money making beautiful sites” set in Helvetica Bold.

    3
  38. 63

    I think the author misses an important point: the fact that Helvetica is and has been so pervasive and people are so used to it, makes for a great reason to use it, design wise; in the same we use red for alert for example. A trained designer can find in Helvetica defects that other faces aren’t afflicted from but that doesn’t mean this make these faces best for design if those faces don’t convey the same mood and ideas, and the history of a typeface is as important than is structural characteristics.

    0
  39. 64

    Sometimes using Halvetica screams no imagination. But to say that days of using it are over or why won’t it go away is an overstatement… After all good design is timeless, and Halvetica more then any other typeface has been timeless… You can stop using it, but I’ll use it when a project calls for it, can’t argue the fact that it has function…

    2
  40. 65

    You’ve missed the whole point of Helvetica movie. It wasn’t about Helvetica being good, it was about Helvetica being the most popular typeface – and how to deal with it. There are designers with different opinions – some think that it is great, someone think that it is bad and others recognize its pros and cons. The main idea wasn’t about Helvetica being good or bad – it was about the existence of lots of different typefaces and Helvetica being one of them.

    The movie was screened at our local museum and at the end almost everyone of the audience agreed that there are different typefaces, and the more the better – you shouldn’t overuse any of them, each of them serves different purpose.

    3
  41. 66

    I love Helvetica! It’s comfort font!

    0
  42. 67

    Legibility Scientist

    December 7, 2012 3:36 pm

    Franklin Gothic Demi has wider x than y.

    Try making a version of Helvetica Bold and even Heavy like that.

    Especially at small sizes, legibility explodes (i.e. goes through the roof).

    0
  43. 68

    I would just like to point out in the CSS for this webpage, the font-family list includes Helvetica Neue, Helvetica and the “Microsoft knockoff”, Arial. Irony…

    4
  44. 69

    Helvetica is to fonts as the Converse All Star is to shoes.

    -2
  45. 70

    With all due respect for the work that went into this article: it does sound like a holy war.

    You can have your opinion, but it does not give you the right to consider yourself the one true light in font darkness.

    For now, it does sound like a holy war, a rant if you will.

    0
  46. 71

    I assume you would grow bored with any font that achieves widespread use. Most of us don’t notice and don’t care. Helvetica works. End of story.

    -2
  47. 72

    Seems like a rant versus a knockout punch against Helvetica. Would I use Helvetica, today, for large block of copy? Unlikely, unless it fit the aesthetic.

    Readability really is about speed. Recognize the symbols instantly so you can comprehend the quantity of copy without too much pause. We dnot raed ervey lteter by istlef or evrey wrod, we read chunks. If the reader isn’t getting through your copy quickly there are two questions; Is the message clear? Is the “design” clear? (Yes. Copy blocks are design elements.)

    Design is still a cousin to art. Move people, get your message across clearly and knock the viewer on their ass. (If we could always pull that off, right?) Whether you do it with (insert the greatest font delivered by the gods), Helvetica, Arial or Comic Sans. Do it well.

    When the visual has to give way to copy, adherence to readability is a key. But know when it matters.

    2
  48. 73

    One can accuse Helvetica of being well made but neutral to the point of boring, and complain about the internal spaces reducing legibility. However Helvertica works very well as a readable typeface that doubles as an abstract graphic object or texture overlay. Many of those designs of the Swiss school use the fact that blocks of Helvetica play well with other abstract graphics, especially in the grid system. It’s an easy goto choice for people who want to drop type on top of a photograph or nestle it in a bunch of rules.

    -2
  49. 74

    Hi there. You’ve just broken the curse. I’ve always been one to say to myself “Oh don’t follow the norm cause that’s where everyone else has been and I don’t won’t to be cliche do I?…” and I always broke that rule for Helvetica. Some how it made me feel like I was on the in crowd coming from the PC world. :D

    With the simple sentence, “It’s a physical fact, and types like Syntax or Frutiger work far better than Helvetica, which remains self-enclosed and constipated-looking.”, the curse was broken! I went to MyFonts and checked them both. I overlayed two screen and used the “sample text” option to view the same sentence in both Helvetica and Frutiger.

    It’s like a magic bullet went through my brain and I said wow Frutiger’s awesome… and Helvetica kinda sucks. Mind you if you want to integrate some nifty geometric graphic design with Helvetica, I still love it. It’s got it’s good points.

    Apologies, I’ve not read the rest of the article, but I felt that this was important enough to share. :D Thanks.

    Sincerely,
    - Freed from the curse.

    2
    • 75

      Every graphic designer has been taught not to be like everyone else, so everyone is running around trying to be unique, but unfortunately they are unique like the rest.

      2
  50. 76

    At Type 90 Roger Black declared that “by 2000 everyone will have a favourite font”. This was really at the beginning of the PostScript revolution and there were, then, perhaps no more than 1000 typefaces available for desktop computers (Adobe Type Manager had just been released the previous year – before then type on screen was just a bunch of clumsy pixels). So Black’s optimism seemed to have a reasonable basis.

    The sad thing is that, 22 years later, the overwhelming majority of computer owners have yet to buy (licence) their first commercial font. In the meantime, there has been a revolution in type design and the number of fonts available is an order of magnitude greater than in 1990. Across the world a myriad independent type designers are creating new fonts, some of an exceptional standard. And, miracle upon miracles, we can finally use some of this type on the web.

    However, because we got the font pricing model wrong (we just carried on with Adobe’s original $40 per weight, tinkering with it slightly), the *font market* never really got going. Sure, some of us graphic designers fork out $100 a few times a year for a typeface family we convince ourselves we could never live without (and probably will never recoup our investment in) – and keep the designers from starvation. But we are a million miles away from “everyone having their own favourite font”.

    And, worse still, we’re stuck with Helvetica/Arial and Times – two of the most misbegotten type families ever to leave a drawing office.

    Of course, if a font weight cost the same as a song on iTunes – or a font family the same as a kindle book – things might be very different.

    11
  51. 77

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

    It was about time!

    3
  52. 78

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

    0
  53. 79

    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
  54. 80

    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
  55. 81

    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
  56. 82

    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
  57. 83

    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
  58. 84

    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
  59. 86

    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
  60. 87

    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
    • 88

      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
  61. 89

    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
  62. 90

    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
  63. 91

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

    3
  64. 92

    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
  65. 93

    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
  66. 94

    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
    • 95

      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
  67. 96

    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
  68. 97

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

    1
  69. 98

    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
  70. 99

    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
  71. 100

    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
  72. 101

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

    1
  73. 102

    ROFL, this page is… Helvetica Neue

    1
  74. 103

    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
  75. 104

    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
  76. 105

    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.

    0
  77. 106

    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
  78. 107

    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
  79. 108

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

    1

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