The Helvetica Debate

butterworth's picture

OK we all know how fashionable it is to
dislike Helvetica these days, but come on.
There's a good reason it's been done to death...
it's a good typeface. Period.

hrant's picture

There's so many ways Helvomita is bad, I'd need to take a week off.

hhp

trae's picture

Please tell me in what ways Helvetica is bad (flinch, nicely, even though this topic seems to be like poking an irritable bear or Judge Judy with a sharp stick).

Look at that lovely R! Helvetica's R alone is enough to endear it to me. Why do so many other sans serifs have such ugly capital Rs? "Frankenletters" that look to have been cobbled together with spare parts?

Compressed, Condensed, Neue, Ultra Light... there are so many ways that it's good. And Helvetica is versatile, too... Nothing awkward about it, Helvetica manages to be utilitarian without being soulless. Though even the most virtuous typefaces can be abused, I guess... flinch.

John Hudson's picture

I never used to care for Helvetica, but I didn't dislike it particularly either. It just wasn't an aesthetic I had any interest in. I always thought, and still think, that the use of Helvetica for text in wide columns on glossy-paged books of the early '70s was hideous and unreadable, but as a heading and display face it seemed to work okay.

Then I had the great pleasure of being commissioned to design a new Cyrillic, Greek and Hebrew for Helvetica, which obliged me to spend a lot more time looking at the design than I had previously. I'm still not inclined to make much use of Helvetica, but I have a lot more respect for it than I used to. One of the things I really came to appreciate was the sheer quirkiness and unpredictability of what most people think of as a very rationalised and geometric design. It's actually pleasantly perverse.

Note that I'm talking here about the original Helvetica. Helvetica Neue is a completely different design: superior in almost every way, but much less quirky.

rcapeto's picture

Helvetica is great. Hrant doesn't understand this because
he sees it from a type designer's point of view (generally
not the best point of view from which to judge typefaces ;).

Mark Simonson's picture

I think Helvetica is mostly a victim of its success. Designers get tired of seeing the same typefaces over and over. I can't think of any typefaces that have become as popular as Helvetica that have not had the same over-exposure problem with designers. I used to like Times Roman a lot more before it became a default font.

As a young proto-designer in high school in the '70s, I was infatuated with Helvetica. My first sheet of Letraset was a sheet of 72-point Helvetica Medium, and I remember marveling over the subtle curves or the lowercase a, e, and s. My design teacher in college said "when in doubt, use Helvetica." I, like many others I think, imagined it as some kind of ultimate standard that all others were to be judged by; that it was a typeface with all the pretensions of style and ornamentation peeled away.

I grew out of my infatuation (or got bored with it) within a couple of years as I became more acquainted with the charms of other typefaces. But I can still remember a time when I imagined that in a perfect world everything would be set in Helvetica. (Ha! Heaven help us.)

I mostly think it's boring now, though I find that the way it has come back into fashion is interesting, were it's brought to center stage again. I couldn't use it like that without feeling ironic. Helvetica used to represent end of style. Now it's just another style.

Isaac's picture

i reckon it all depends on how it's used. i don't really
care for it in body text, although it's not as bad as
some people (hhp, i'm looking at you) think. thin weights
at large sizes can look somewhat elegant and stylish,
for whatever that's worth.

that's all well and good, but univers is even better.

matteson's picture

>Helvetica used to represent end of style.

Helvetica always reminds me of, as a kid, shopping at JCPenney for Wrangler jeans. Talk about no style.

In general though, I have to say that I agree with Isaac. I've got a few books at home set, unfortunately, in Helvetica. It's by far not an ideal situation, but they're certainly readable. And readable more than once even, if necessary. At the worst, I think it makes the books seem dated - but not entirely bankrupt of all typographic morals.

In all frankness, I have Isaacitis: I absolutely love Univers, so my views on sans serif type are entirely suspect ;)

Isaac's picture

>I have Isaacitis

hey, you gave it to me. i started getting over it,
but then i got some univers letraset sheets.
precious...

Mark Simonson's picture

I also think that ITC was trying to impose the aesthetic qualities of Helvetica onto its revivals of Bookman, Garamond, Cheltenham, Caslon, and Franklin Gothic. If you take the serifs off of ITC American Typewriter, you are left with Helvetica, more or less. You can see some of the same thinking in WTC Bodoni and WTC Goudy.

rs_donsata's picture

A problem with types wich are so popular as Helvetica does is that they have lost their hability to give individuality, identity gets lost into the daily experience.

hdschellnack's picture

I think the strength of Helvetica is that it HAS no individuality. Overused to death and mundande and -- thanks to Monotypes Arial bastardization of Akzidenz and Helv -- everyday in fron of half the population of the world, I think there is not a single typeface in the world that is more bland. And I really have started to love that quality. Sometymes you just don't WANT a typeface with personality. Sometimes a grey suit is just the right thing and you don't need the lavender-striped piece.
I remember that I hated Helv for most of the 80s and early 90s. But most of the so-called replacements like, say, already look old-fashioned, as their aesthetic is so much coined by the times they were created in, while the Helvetica still looks fresh, maybe because it looks so 60s bland and neutral.

I think its a bad choice for corporate design, and I'm burdened with two clients who use Helvetica so I know what I'm talking about, but it is often perfect for jobs that have such a strong photographic or design impact that any kind of playful type would just be too much . The classicist static and stoic Helvetica is just the right counterpoint here. Just as I find that Futura, which I hated with just as much fervor, is sometimes dead right in creating a certain

trae's picture

"There is no bad type."

Funny, I heard those exact words earlier yesterday after curling my lip at Cheltenham Handtooled. "There is no bad type because each and every one serves a purpose somewhere... even Hobo," my older/wiser partner said. This coming from the guy who professed aversion to Helvetica until I begged to use it; now he just can't get enough of it. Lesson learned, nonetheless.

Neutral is a good word. I love that some Helveticas, as you said, are great large and others are perfect for supporting roles.

Helvetica is seen but not heard unless you want it to be.

hdschellnack's picture

>>Helvetica is seen but not heard unless
>>you want it to be.

I think Helvetica, despite its faults is very close to Tschicholds and Morrisons demand that typography shouldn't get between author and reader. While I personally think that such a thing is unlikely to actually happen and also that it isn't wrong at all to get between those two and to interpret and act as a catalysator in the communicative process, it seems that Miedinger succeeded in making Helvetica very very invisible. I think it says a LOT about German companies that they're so in love (or simply used to) this typeface... and I think that as a designer we shouldn't take Helv as granted but look for alternatives... but sometimes there simply is none. I know of know other typeface, except maybe DIN that is as sterile and functional as Helv... And in a minimalist design you WANT a typeface to look that way.

hrant's picture

I am surrounded by bad type. Type that has bad spacing, type that has too-long descenders, type that's too regressive. Most type is bad.

hhp

rcapeto's picture

HD Schellnack:
Some day somebody will get the right idea and give
the Helvetica Ligatures, Small Caps and OSFs. It
would give the font a whole new dimension of irony.



Ten years ago I designed a set of lowercase figures for
Neue Helvetica 75. It was used, exclusively, in the
signage for an exhibition:

neue H 75, lc figs

But there was nothing new here, in fact. Akzidenz Grotesk,
the mother of all Helveticas, had already had lc figures
for some time (but only in the "light" weight, curiously).

I don't think, BTW, that this was such a necessary thing
(small caps would be particularly pathetic). In my case,
the motivation was to follow the exhibition logo, designed
by Goebel Weyne, a great designer here:

ESdi30

In the case of Futura (and Gill Sans!) the lc figures are,
on the other hand, essential, in my opinion. I haven't seen
the de Groot figures that you mention. The original Renner
ones, as released by The Foundry, are perfect.

Mark Simonson's picture

A cool and modern remix of Helvetica that doesn't touch the actual invisibility of the font but adds professional typographic details would be cool. I always wondered why Linotype never did something along those lines.

I wonder how long it will be before Linotype (I don't know who else could, legally) revives the display versions of Helvetica. They are not the same as the text versions. I think Neue is closer to it than the old Linotype version, but, in the olden days, the display version was Helvetica. You can compare them here:

helveticas

hrant's picture

That upcurl in the top of the counter of the "a" just makes me nauseous.

hhp

hdschellnack's picture

>Azidenz Grotesk, the mother of all Helveticas,
>already had lc figures

Yeah, but they look old-fashioned. I think cleaner, sleeker figures would be good.
And why no small caps? I recently built my own for a project on which I hjad to use Helvetica and it worked rather nicely. I think Sc and OSF are a way of communicating that yes, you ARE using a bland typeface, but you do it for a reason and by such little details prove that you know what you're doing.

Here - if the upload works -- is the Futura by Luc.

Futura

hdschellnack's picture

>I used Bitstream's Swiss for a whole year
>believing I was following the footsteps of the
>Swiss masters.

BTW, the new (well, relatively) design of the second German television, ZDF, was done in SWISS!!! Oh Jesus, isn't that awesome. Some F*** goes and wastes Otl Aichers (!) original design for the station and uses, of all typefaces in the world, a cheap clone of a typeface you shouldn't use for CD. Probably because he used CorelDraw, as Swiss is part of that package. The rest of the design is overwhelmingly awful as well. I remember Erik Spiekermann blasting it to pieces in the Page, and even the German newsmagazine DER SPIEGEL was having gun at the expense of the design :-D.

rcapeto's picture

Here - if the upload works -- is the Futura by Luc.

Thanks. I much prefer the original one, though.

Some F*** goes and wastes Otl Aichers (!) original
design for the station


Yes, I've seen it, and I agree it's a shame.

hdschellnack's picture

>Thanks. I much prefer the original one, though.

Hmm, while the originals add to the 30s flair of the type, I think that Luc(as) version is more straightforward and the OSFs are more non-descript, fitting better in with a modern text and the clean cool look of the Futura. I don't know about the Foundry version, but the Neufville release doesn't wow me much, it's just too retro to be of practical use today. Luc's version retains a very modern touch.

Re Tv-Channel-Identification. I've been to an expo on the history of TV some years back and noticed that almost everything looked better designed and simpler and ... just moe beautiful... in the early days of TV as a mass-medium. The 50s/60s screendesign, although there were terrible poopers as well, it just felt more relaxed than the overcoloured overanimated stuff we have today.

By the way, most German TV-stations use Helvetica or something similar. The ARD uses the Thesis whole clan, which works surprisingly well on screen. Almost every show has its ID done in some of the Thesis fonts... and this gives us a coherent look yet still offers the single shows some individuality.

Miss Tiffany's picture

RE: TV Channel Identification

FOX has a new one running announcing their Sunday night shows which is very retro. I really like how simple and clean it is. I have to agree. There are one too many copies of 3Dmax running on this planet. :^)

RE: Futura and OSF

This is strictly my opinion, but I really think that the OSF goes against how I view Futura as a typeface. OSF are not decoration I do understand that. They serve a very specific purpose typographically. But I still think they seem a little OTT for a face that stands (stood?) for sterility in design. (good steril not bad steril)

hdschellnack's picture

>seem a little OTT for a face that stands
>(stood?) for sterility in design
Yup, I agree that the linear figures fit better to the rigidity and sterility, the sheer Anti-Renaissance-statement of Futura...

but still, first of all Renner (or was it Ferdinand Kramer, as de Groot hints at) included OSFs, and secondly... they just look effing good in a sentence, adding a whole new dimension to the font. I just LOVE OSFs. Really, I'm completely hooked on them. Even Gill Sans is agreeable for me with the Monotype OSFs :-D.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Interesting question. Who did include/design the OSF for Futura.

Yes. In a sentence one (you or myself) usually doesn't want the figures standing tall over the other characters. The OSF do blend nicely. But, I would usually steer clear of using Futura in a setting with too much text. As for Gill. Well, that is a Humanist typeface and I also think the the OSF look fine with it.

rcapeto's picture

Interesting question. Who did include/design
the OSF for Futura.


Huh? - wasn't it Renner himself? Or did you mean
Gill Sans? This I would also like to know.

I can't agree with the two of you that Futura
looks "sterile". To me it doesn't. Also what does
"Anti-Renaissance-statement" means? In the very
"Trajanian" proportion of its caps, its quite
traditional vertical proportions (small body,
long extenders), Futura doesn't seem to me that
disconnected from a Renaissance lineage even.
And it's great for text - provided one uses the
lc figures, of course.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Rodolfo -- Sterile in a good way. I wasn't trying to insult
the typeface or Renner. -- The period of Renner and the
style that most associate with this, is strict and structured
and linear. Nothing hanging below any lines. I said it
already, but this is only my opinion. And instead of sterile I
should have said strict or structured. --- I agree with you
about the proportions of Futura, and maybe the problem is
in using terminology that is usually reserved for "Old-Style"
typefaces?? Maybe. I like Futura don't get me wrong. I
would simply not use it for a text that does have too many
figures/numerals popping up, because as you point out, it
would need the OsF

rcapeto's picture

Oh, I never thought you were insulting Futura or
Renner (or Ferdinand Kramer for that matter!) :-)

Mark Simonson's picture

That upcurl in the top of the counter of the "a" just
makes me nauseous.


I can understand that. I get kind of a combination of
wistfulness and revulsion. Makes me think of striped
bell-bottom pants, platform shoes, and paisley shirts.
And shag carpeting. <shudder> Well, maybe it's not
quite that bad.

hdschellnack's picture

>Also what does "Anti-Renaissance-statement" >means?
I think Renner et al wanted the new typography of the 1920s as a concious statement against the typographic look coined by Venetian and French Renaissance. While Futura harkens back to the Capitalis Monumentalis in that it is based on circles and squares as base forms, it is a geometric contruction, done with compasses and ruler, not created in a more dynamic way by hand with a nib/pen. That is what I mean by sterile. Although the finished version, of course, is by no way as regid as the first designs (the o, e.g., isn't just a circle anymore but rather returned to the slightly oval form we know since the 14th century to be optically correct, it still, imo, was a statement against the old-fashioned typography that went before the 20th century.

The digital Futura, btw, isn't too good for longer text, I think. The digial version needs a lot of manual kerning because of the geometric shape of the letters, and while with a LOT of manual editing you can get a decent looking text, it's just too much work to bother. Also, I tend to think that a more dynamic letterform is just more gentle on the reader :-D. I couldn't imagine reading a book or a lengthy article in Futura, even Helvetica would be better.

keith_tam's picture

And it's great for text - provided one uses the
lc figures, of course.


Futura is really brutal for any extended amounts of text for reading. The long ascenders/descenders, geometric construction and incoherence of the letterforms lack flow and making reading very uncomforable. The text figures help, but not by much.

<i>In the very "Trajanian" proportion of its caps, its quite
traditional vertical proportions (small body, long extenders), Futura doesn't seem to me that disconnected from a Renaissance lineage even.<i>

I agree. The caps certainly owe a lot to the Trajan Roman caps (and to the caps of Edward Johnston's Underground type and Gill Sans), but the lowercase to me doesn't say a lot about the Renaissance ? quite purely geometric. It's funny how Gill Sans really didn't catch on in continental Europe and North America in the 20/30s... people preferred the modernity of Futura, so Monotype made an 'alternate' version of Gill Sans, but it really was just a close imitation of Futura...


keith_tam's picture

While we're on the topic of small caps and text figures of sanserif types, have you seen these?

SCs and OSFs

hrant's picture

> The long ascenders/descenders

A small x-height (upto a point) is good for readability, if not legibility - at least for anything above like 9 point.

But most Futuras have a much larger x-height than the original.

hhp

hdschellnack's picture

Hmmm, Function and Opus look lke Clones of Futura and Optima. The Officina, btw, has a nifty set of OSFs in that new package distributed by Fontshop, although I don't use Officina (way overused, imo, so I avoid it) and thus haven't had an excuse to buy it.

rcapeto's picture

Futura is really brutal for any extended amounts
of text for reading. The long ascenders/descenders,
geometric construction and incoherence of the
letterforms lack flow and making reading very
uncomforable.


Well, I wrote that with tongue partially in cheek,
but only partially. I could answer that, as in most
cases, how one sets it is what matters most. Just
one of these days I was seeing a book, published
in the early fifties, set in Futura, a very clean, not
darkish, metal composition, well leaded. It was very
nice and invited reading.

The caps certainly owe a lot to the Trajan Roman
caps (and to the caps of Edward Johnston's Underground
type and Gill Sans), but the lowercase to me doesn't
say a lot about the Renaissance ? quite purely geometric.


Thank God, no? In fact, I was referring to proportions, not
the shapes themselves. I'm with St. Bernard de Clairvaux
on this: proportions are what matter.

BTW, are you saying that the Gill Sans caps were an
actual influence in the development of Futura? I'd like
to know about references for this, if you have them.
Thanks.

keith_tam's picture

...in most cases, how one sets it is what matters most. Just
one of these days I was seeing a book, published
in the early fifties, set in Futura, a very clean, not
darkish, metal composition, well leaded. It was very
nice and invited reading.


Oh, sure. It depends on which cut of Futura too. Not enough leading is generally the problem for Futura. Metal Futura could be really nice. But the trouble is, a lot of people use Adobe's Futura, which really isn't good for text setting.

Thank God, no?

Yes! And it shows how geometric the construction of Roman Capitals is and how adaptable it is to 'modern' type.

I was referring to proportions, not the shapes themselves.

Me too. In fact that's what Renner wanted to achieve: to reference classical proportions, and let the grometrical principles behind the construction of the letters cohere them together. 'It is not little marks, rather it is the "spiritual bond" that binds the many individual marks into a unity of form.' (From Chris Burke's Paul Renner: the art of typography)

proportions are what matter.

Yes, but it's not everything. Subtle details of Futura made it a really good type, not just its proportions. Look at how bowls join the stems. Every detail mattered.

BTW, are you saying that the Gill Sans caps were an actual influence in the development of Futura? I'd like to know about references for this, if you have them. Thanks.

No, I have no evidence to support that. But lineage could be made between Johnston's type/calligraphic teaching and Futura, maybe?

hrant's picture

> "It is not little marks, rather it is the 'spiritual bond' that binds the many individual marks into a unity of form."

This certainly sounds very inspiring and all, but I've become increasingly uncomfortable with statements like these (about type). Exactly what makes for a "coherent" font for the reader? I think it's something very different than what makes it merely enjoyable to the designer.

hhp

rcapeto's picture

>proportions are what matter.

Yes, but it's not everything. Subtle details of Futura made it
a really good type


Yes, you'd say that God's in the details. I may agree,
but St. Bernard, a man who for obvious reasons is very
close to God, thought otherwise. ;)

hrant's picture

Yes, I like them almost as much as I like the Bernese breed.

hhp

tsprowl's picture

for me its the a & g problem.
if the a has a counter the g should have a loop. if its going to be sans serif whats with that a. agagaga. donno why but fonts that don't match those irk me.

William Berkson's picture

I think that Helvetica has stong virtues and terrible weaknesses. Its virtue is that it is very stong as a display type, while retaining some grace. Its weakness is that it is one of the most unreadable typefaces as a text face. Its value as a display face has, however, been almost totally eliminated by overuse.

Even in display sizes, it can have problems with readability. Frutiger's opening up of letter forms in a Sans Serif certainly helped readability, and has been widely imitated.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised that if after 10 or 15 years, it couldn't be used judiciously as a display type and look very good again.

sham's picture

Helvetica was one of the only fonts I had on my original LaserJet I printer. I think only 14.4 pt was available.

Those little upcurls on Helvetica are a little like a mastadon trying to be "flirty" and seem out of place.

Isaac's picture

exactly why univers rocks.

Joe Pemberton's picture

Maybe I'm revealing too much about myself, but when I was
a second-year design student I used Bitstream's Swiss for
a whole year believing I was following the footsteps of the
Swiss masters. (Ok, I'm exaggerating a little.) I was crushed
to find out it was the same as Helvetica. But, I honestly
think it opened my eyes to the beauty of a face I would
have otherwise written off.

That said, I still take great lengths to avoid using it.

Joe Pemberton's picture

HD Schellnack wrote:
BTW, the new (well, relatively) design of the second German television, ZDF, was done in SWISS!!! ...of all typefaces in the world, a cheap clone of a typeface you shouldn't use for CD. Probably because he used CorelDraw, as Swiss is part of that package. The rest of the design is overwhelmingly awful as well. I remember Erik Spiekermann blasting it to pieces in the Page, and even the German newsmagazine DER SPIEGEL was having gun at the expense of the design :-D.

The 'broadband group' at Razorfish, New York (formerly Lee
Hunt Associates, circa 2000) did the ZDF stuff. So I can at
least vouch that they didn't use CorelDraw to do it. =)

I won't comment on the ZDF stuff (since I've never seen it),
but I will say their recent work for PBS, PBS Kids and the
Disney Channel is great.

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