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Being Fogged in Font Aversion Hinders Sight

Yesterday we published the article “Why Won’t Helvetica Go Away”1 in which Alastair Johnston discussed the evolution of Helvetica, the reasons for its popularity as well as his thoughts on why designers should start questioning the usefulness of Helvetica in their projects. Hours later Indra Kupferschmid published an article2 in which she corrected some of the facts presented in the original article. We republish Indra’s article to correct the factual errors, with her permission of course.—Ed.

This isn’t a “blue pencil” (I could never challenge master Shaw3); just a lazy, quick rant. Alastair Johnston wrote an article on Helvetica posted on Smashing Magazine yesterday. I don’t want to comment on his strong opinion and cut out most of his subjective ranting. But some facts seem to have gotten a bit wonky.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link4

He writes:

The other day someone sent me a link to a website with the preposterous title of “The 100 Best Typefaces of All Time9.” 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 Berlin-based typographers, but I was still incensed.

This was a survey done by FontShop in Germany in 200610, and it included more than just Berlin-based typographers. Said FontShop’s website11 has more precise info on the jury and criteria:

Criteria of the ranking:

  • Sales figures: 40%
  • Historical significance: 30%
  • Aesthetic quality: 30%

The ranking does not include free fonts or components from operating systems or software (Arial, Verdana, etc.), but focuses exclusively on licensable printers’ typefaces. Types that, over the centuries, have been interpreted individually by several different foundries (Bodoni, Garamond, Futura and so on) were judged collectively and included as a single entry.

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 Studio [sic] (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 types19 for the market.

Laser printers use outline fonts; bitmap fonts were used for screen representation or matrix printers. The name of the Dutch booklet he refers to is “Letters in studie20,” meaning “typefaces in the making,” or “in study” or “experiment.”

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 Stempel foundry.

Futura is a typeface by the Bauer type 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.

This is an incredibly brief summary of 30 years. Or what time is the author talking about when he says “suddenly”? Berthold did not rework Akzidenz-Grotesk until after Helvetica was issued (and became threateningly successful) — it had been available ever since 1898; it just became very popular in the 1950s. Neue Haas-Grotesk was based on Haas’ Französische Grotesk21 (which was based on Breite halbfette Grotesk22 by Schelter & Giesecke) and Haas’ Normal-Grotesk23 (which was based on Neue Moderne Grotesk24 by Wagner & Schmidt), with an eye on competing typefaces such as AG and Monotype Grotesque. NHG was not “picked up” by Stempel but insistently offered to it by Haas against its initial skepticism.

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).

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.

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.

I don’t understand what the author is trying to say in that last paragraph. Geometric sans-serifs were popular in the 1930s, yes, and all foundries “had to” issue their own, yes — almost all did, but well before German foundries cut down type production from 1942 on. Also, it never seized completely. Some foundries were destroyed in the war (Klingspor, for instance), but others (such as Stempel) not at all. The surge in the use of grotesques such as Akzidenz-Grotesk and — not to forget — Monotype Grotesque is rooted in the 1950s in Switzerland, and arose later in the design of the so-called “neo-grotesk” faces. The taste in typefaces was rather different in Germany, with Futura, Erbar and Neuzeit still widely used after Word War II. Also, the more calligraphy-inspired style of Schneidler, Trump and Zapf was very popular.

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.

As Paul Barnes points out25 rightly, “As Ruder & Hofmann were of the Basle school they used Univers/Akzidenz Grotesk not Helvetica”. Fuelling the rivalry between the Swiss “schools,” Zürichers like Hans Neuburg and Josef Müller-Brockmann were advocating Helvetica. The latter designed promotional material for NHG and Helvetica, such as the famous Satzklebebuch26 binder. Only Basel-based designer Albert Gromm once designed one of the initial marketing flyers for Helvetica in 1959.

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 other27 corporations.


Graffiti protesting Bank of America in Berkeley, California, is chalked in a convincing Helvetica form.

Bank of America does not use Helvetica. Its corporate typeface is Franklin Gothic. The chalk artist doesn’t even try to mimic Helvetica, but rather mimics the bank’s actual typeface.

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.

Stempel had held Haas shares since 1927, first 45%, then 51% from 1954 on. Stempel’s majorities of shares were owned by Linotype. Haas bought Deberny & Peignot (and thus Univers) in 1972. When Stempel closed in 1985, its Haas shares went to Linotype, which purchased all rights to the Haas foundry in 1989.

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.

My impression is that people who hate Helvetica never really looked at the original, but detest — rightfully — the lousy version that comes with computer operating systems, digitized in a hurry in the early days of PostScript. For a detailed comparison and for more information on Helvetica’s history, see the Neue Haas Grotesk feature website.28

Neue Haas Grotesk vs Neue Helvetica.29

The original design of Neue Haas-Grotesk was not as square as Neue Helvetica. Also, I wouldn’t say that the “a,” “s” and “e” in Helvetica “resemble one another,” as he suggests in the following paragraphs, but rather that the “I” and “l” and the “rn” and “m” could be confused.

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 [sic] 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).

Frutiger did not try “to improve on Helvetica.” Maybe he tried to improve the grotesque model/genre. Frutiger had begun work on Univers much earlier than Haas did with Neue Haas-Grotesk. Both typefaces were released at the same time, with all foundries knowing about the work of the others (also Bauer with Folio, released the same year, 1957). The expansion of Helvetica was not “caused” by Univers.


Comparison of four sans serifs from MyFonts

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.

It would help if the samples of each typeface showed the same text and characters, which is very easy to do on MyFonts. What a weak image to prove debatable points.

I can’t bring myself to quote the rest of the article. Read on over on Smashing Magazine30.


Footnotes Link

  1. 1 /2012/12/06/why-wont-helvetica-go-away/
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  30. 30 /2012/12/06/why-wont-helvetica-go-away/

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Indra Kupferschmid is a German typographer and teacher based in Bonn and Saarbrücken. After studying visual communication at the Bauhaus-University Weimar and with Fred Smeijers in the Netherlands, she founded her own studio mainly designing and editing books for publishing houses and cultural institutions; research projects on architecture and housing; typeface development for print, packaging and consumer-product interfaces and devices.

  1. 1

    Alastair Johnston

    December 7, 2012 11:56 pm

    I’ve updated the MyFonts image to show the same text, and corrected the typo Stempel to Bauer (I should know since I have 50 cases of foundry Futura). My other semantic errors (such as Frutiger improving on the grotesk model) were the result of hasty writing. Thanks for your feedback.

  2. 3

    I feel the article seems more as a way to correct Alastair’s factual errors as opposed to actually arguing his opinion and providing good reasons why those against Helvetica should not be so.

    I don’t think the correction’s are bad, nor do I necessarily agree with Alastair’s opinion either, I just think that Indra may not be seeing the forest for the trees.

    • 4

      Joseph Alessio

      December 8, 2012 4:38 am

      You’re exactly right – it’s purpose was indeed to correct the factual errors. You can see it on her blog here. I don’t think she intended to argue against Alastair’s basic premise that Helvetica should not be used in the vast majority of instances in which it is used today.

    • 5

      I think Indra’s point wasn’t to express disagreement with the original article’s overall position, but just to be pedantic for the sake of clarity; she says, “My impression is that people who hate Helvetica never really looked at the original, but detest — rightfully — the lousy version that comes with computer operating systems, digitized in a hurry in the early days of PostScript.” She makes the distinction between the two to clarify Alastair’s opinion somewhat, in order to see whether it was his dislike of the original or the digitized version that he was expressing. In other words, she never expresses explicit (dis)agreement, but instead opens the door to either.

  3. 6

    Binky Huckerback

    December 8, 2012 3:17 am

    Thank you Indra for correcting so many of the author’s errors which irritated me so much when I originally read his grotesque rant. I also understood that Adrian Frutiger’s eponymous font was originally designed for the airport at Roissy and has a charming warmth that makes it a pleasure to work with.

    • 7

      @Binky: “grotesque rant”; is the pun intended?

      • 8

        Binky Huckerback

        December 13, 2012 11:27 am


        The carelessly written article, littered with inaccuracies, omissions and a misunderstanding of technology, appeared to be nothing more than link-bait.

  4. 9

    i still don”t think this is usefull

  5. 10


    December 8, 2012 11:28 am

    In short:

    1. The original rant on Helvetica was hastly written but still retains much of its emotional value. I love Helvetica but you’ve got to commend Alastair for writing the piece.
    2. Indra points to all factual errors and that’s good but it’s not a direct counter to Alastair’s emotional appeal and aversion to Helvetica.

  6. 11

    Pavlo Mykhalov

    December 8, 2012 11:59 am

    The article is clearly missing a conclusion. If the original author used incorrect facts to prove his statement, did it means the statement is incorrect too?

    Indra barely mentions poor digitizing work on famous font. But wouldn’t the transfer to the different medium be the biggest problem had (not) been solved?

  7. 12

    I think this was a great read. It’s amazing to see how people are so obsessive over typefaces! I mean I love cars, but not to the point of knowing every little curve of each model and history of how the car was pressed or welded, but really – thanks for the insights. It was fascinating.

  8. 13

    Indra doesn’t have to state an opinion to call foul on the original article; the author’s blatant disregard of factual information does that for her.
    Without accurate facts to back up his opinion the original article equates to a playground argument. To top it off he also condescends to those who aren’t experts on type distinction. Deplorable.
    Though I love Smashing Magazine this calls question to every other article I’ve read on the site. They should never have published the piece.

  9. 14

    Hours later Indra Kupferschmid published an article in which she corrected some of the facts presented in the original article.

    ^ (in very small voice)
    Excuse me, but how can one correct…FACTS?

    It seems to me that facts are inviolate, objective and true. To say you are “correcting facts” seem decidedly disingenuous. Say that you are correcting ERRORS and accept your failings graciously.

    Maybe it seems like hair splitting, but when we start lying to ourselves in little ways like this, we end up being unable to see the truth when it is presented to us, especially when it differs from our currently held views.

    But dont take MY word for it, ask Mr Romney who last month around this time when seeking for the truth did not like the truth he found and simply created his own in the form of polls that reflected what HE wanted to see….sigh

    • 15

      Alfred Approver

      December 8, 2012 9:59 pm

      You’re not the only irritated by this. Thanks for pointing it out.

    • 16

      Alfred, a fact is a statement that can be proven to be true or false. A fact is not necessarily true.

      • 17

        Fact: Noun
        A thing that is indisputably the case.

      • 18

        A fact is always, indisputably, objectively true.
        A *hypothesis* is a statement which may be proven to be true or false.

        With regard to this article – design and font zealots (like Alastair) who decry:
        – “Gradients are teh evil!”
        – “Drop shadows were invented by Hitler!”
        – “Lens flare kills kittens!”
        – “Helvetica is smug and repellant!”
        Are simply too closed-minded to understand that no font, no design technique, no design style should be “off-limits” or “out-of-bounds” and there is an appropriate usage for everything, depending on the brief. It is unsurprising that there are so many factual errors in his original piece that it takes an entire second article from Indra simply to catalogue them.

      • 19

        Only in the realm of philosophy, outside of that facts are truth. The corrections that are being addressed here are not philosophical in nature and so Alfred’s comment still stands.

    • 20

      Good lord, you really tried to bring politics into a conversation about fonts?

      • 21

        “Good lord, you really tried to bring politics into a conversation about fonts?”

        ^ actually, my comment regarding Mr Romney was not a political statement, but a psychological one.

        I am not American and do not otherwise participate in your process, but like others, I follow it with great interest.
        It is compelling to watch how one organization, when presented with dissenting poll data simply discounts it out of hand, without even examining the real reason behind a poll’s results: sampling, and methodology.

        Despite all the technology at our disposal, the raw consumer (our psychological processes) is decidedly flawed. As designers, we know this!
        We utilize this knowledge either consciously or unconsciously in our design, presenting CALL TO ACTION, keeping key elements “within the fold”, carefully choosing colors, grid spacing (the golden grid ratio, anyone?) because we know certain things about how the eye (really the brain) works.

  10. 22

    I would also take issue with the claims about legibility. In the literature, there is little evidence to support the claim the Helvetica impedes legibility.  In fact, the most consistent finding has been that – where the most commonly used fonts are concerned – the difference in reading speed and comprehension between fonts is negligible given modern printing processes and display technologies.

    I would guess the problems Alexander has with Helvetica aren’t that far removed from the experience an audiophile has with mp3s – sometimes the details the expert sees (or hears) trip-up what is otherwise a highly automated process.

  11. 23

    Helvetica Neue Ultra Light has been overused as a fashion font, but it performs well in this context. Fonts speak to personalities, with personalities come attitudes. We should celebrate legacy styles, things come in and out of style and at the end of the day it is mostly about what customers respond to. Don’t like a font? A/B test it, you may be surprised.

  12. 24

    Personally… all fonts have their uses but I think knowledge and experience in this instance are a hindrance rather than a help.

    The majority of people don’t know or care about a type face. They might recognise that one typeface fits an instance better than another, but most people are happy to read and write everything in comic sans and be done with it. They don’t care if the original version of a font was bastardised when it was converted to digital, to them they look the same, all they want to do is read something and move on to the next thing. Its our job to make their task as easy as possible by picking the font that best suits the situation. If that job involves using Helvetica, then sobeit. We shouldn’t let our opinions cloud our judgements, we should be open and flexible about what to use and where. In this case I believe the knowledge and experience of Alastair Johnston have conspired against him, he basically knows too much about the font and the history of it, and that has spoiled his judgement, if he knew less, he could make the decision based on how the font reads without bias from decades of accumulated knowledge.

    At the end of the day even the much demonised Comic-Sans has a place in the world.

    • 25

      Try printing your bank statement in Comic Sans.. Tell me that isn’t an easier pill to swallow

    • 27

      ^ Dan Gilbert ( Cleveland Cavs) thanks you.

    • 28

      Comic Sans is indeed an aesthetic blight, but it is one of very few legible typefaces for people with dyslexia to read. Therefore, although I really do hate it, I’m willing to let it go.

  13. 29

    Scott Stringer

    December 14, 2012 8:02 pm

    The original article, errors aside, has taught me to sharply reconsider my use of many fonts. I’m a long way from the “Helvetica must die” camp as it is just one of many tools I am at liberty to use. Like all good tools, the trick is knowing when to use it.

  14. 30

    I’m not sure whether to be upset with misinformation, but this happens all the time. Be patient there!


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