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Why Won’t Helvetica Go Away?

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.


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?

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 trashed and distressed 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.

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).

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.

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 other9 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.

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.

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.

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!”

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.

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 Arial15” 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.

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.”

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

I sincerely believe that people (even designers18) 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.

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.


Footnotes Link

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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.

  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.

    • 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.

  2. 3

    Abhimanyu Rana

    December 6, 2012 6:19 pm

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

  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?

    • 5

      You don’t own Frutiger? WTF? Do you also not own Univers?

    • 6

      Alastair Johnston

      December 7, 2012 8:38 pm

      tried Georgia?

    • 7 – Free fonts – Simple JavaScript implementation [for web anyway].
      Similarly – Google

    • 8

      Michael Ferrell

      December 20, 2012 9:15 am

      I have to point out the increasing popularity of “Open Sans” which is much fuller, taller, and more beautiful compared to Helvetica. I’m sure Helvetica will have reach its demise as trends shift to the new “cool”.

      • 9

        Ezequiel Bruni

        January 6, 2013 11:13 pm

        Oh, I love Open Sans to bits! It’s become my go-to font for a lot of things and well… that might be bad. Don’t want my designs to get stale, after all…

        But still. It’s a beautiful, legible, free font. It’s hard to beat.

    • 10

      You go to Google webfonts or Open Font Library. There are literally TONS of great open licensed fonts out there and many of them are professionally made. Just look around.

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 15


      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.

      • 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.

    • 17

      Joseph Alessio

      December 6, 2012 8:04 pm

      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.

      • 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.

        • 19

          Joseph Alessio

          December 7, 2012 4:57 am

          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.

      • 20

        Alastair Johnston

        December 7, 2012 8:39 pm

        thank you Joseph

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  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.

  7. 25


    December 6, 2012 7:22 pm

    Thumbs up for the truth!

  8. 26


    December 6, 2012 7:26 pm

    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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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. ;)

  13. 33

    Lots of successful brands have been built using helvetica. There are many ways to work with the font. See link.

    • 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).

  14. 35

    ZOMG Syntax is so ugly man.

  15. 36

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

  16. 38

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

  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!!!

  18. 40

    nathan vaughn

    December 6, 2012 8:57 pm

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

    • 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.

      • 42

        Robert Jakobson

        December 7, 2012 4:49 am

        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.

        • 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.

  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.

  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.


    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.)


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