Helvetica vs. Univers

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Rob King's picture
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Joined: 8 Sep 2005 - 9:54pm
Helvetica vs. Univers
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I'm pro-[[Helvetica]] and have quite a bit of experience using it, and I haven't used [[Univers]] much. But lately I've seen things designed with Univers that look great. Does anyone have any thoughts on comparing the two? Univers seems to have slightly more personality /warmth/elegance, but maybe that's just because it seems "newer" to me (since I haven't used it much).

Thoughts?

Thanks.

Chris Lozos's picture
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Rob,
They both came out at the same time in the mid 50s. There are those who are in one camp or another. I much prefer Univers because it is much more thought out as a family and just feels right to me.

ChrisL

Uli Stiehl's picture
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Joined: 1 Feb 2006 - 8:02am
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Thanks for the explanation.

Do you also happen to know, in which book or paper Zapf coined this term?

Stephen Hollingsworth's picture
Joined: 14 Jul 2010 - 11:10pm
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In design school, I was eventually banned from using Helvetica. I came to love Univers.

Mark Simonson's picture
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Pretty sure it's in one of his books, but I'm away from home at the moment and can't remember which.

Blank's picture
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It’s a superellipse, the Wikipedia entry has more information. Mmmm, Melior.

Nick Shinn's picture
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Telefunken, 1939: the first "rectangular" CRT.
Prior to that, TV tubes were round, but had a "landscape picture format" viewing area cropped onto them.
Similarly, cameras crop the circular image from a camera lens into a square film format -- so the new media, cameras and then TVs (and computer screens), adopted the traditional image-display shape.

The cartouche shape goes back to Ancient Egypt (Ramses era):

...and an oval shape was used for the traditional Japanese fan (here, 1808):

These in themselves are quite specific and different ellipses.

IMO, the super ellipse emerged as an intriguing, recognizable shape about 70 years ago, a compromise because it was impossible to blow a square glass tube. This compromise shape had a cachet of style and glamour, representing the leading edge of technology.

This shape was then adopted by furniture makers and type designers, cross-over.
Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese were the first to thoroughly base a type design on the super ellipse CRT, in 1952.

Interestingly, Adrian Frutiger's working drawings (I recall seeing them in a small paperback monograph) for Univers show much more super-ellipse than in the finished item.

Nick Shinn's picture
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Did I just make another post to a thread with "Helvetica" in its title?
This is too Mariah vs. Beyoncé, gotta stop.

Nick Shinn's picture
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Meet the new boss.

RG's picture
RG
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I am curious to know what Typophiles think of Brendan Stromberger's (bstrom's) post:

[...]Helvetica (or Univers, or whatever) for the logo and branding of a kindergarten[...]

Thanks!

RG

derrylwc's picture
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While every designer should be aware of the history (and therefore, the myriad legitimate reasons why things are or aren't done in a certain way) surrounding design issues... to say that one should always use Helvetica over Univers or Arial, what-have-you, is a tad simplistic. They're all lovely typefaces, and each designer will fall into their groove of using a particular one over the other - based on the type of work they do (nature of clients, etc.) and their personal aesthetic.

Nick makes some very good points, however, about the real-world connotations that these highly-similar faces have. I personally find the horizontally-sliced appearance of Helvetica to be rather machined-looking and harsh, as if the letterforms of the 'e' or 'c' might cut you somehow... as a result I use Arial much more frequently. To me it seems friendlier and equally professional.

Some designers use Helvetica exclusively, because it "cannot be improved upon" and therefore should always be used. This is neither true, nor is it worth arguing in much depth. To each his/her own!

Chris Lozos's picture
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Joined: 25 Feb 2004 - 11:00am
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Being "banned from using Helvetica" is just as bad as using it all the time!
The typeface you choose should be on how well it does the job, not on some philosophical stance.

As Nick stated, the boss/client may intervene but if you are making the decision, make it on effectiveness.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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> Being "banned from using Helvetica" is just as bad as using it all the time!

Well, almost as bad. :-)

hhp

Chris Lozos's picture
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OK, Hrant--almost ;-)

Nick Curtis's picture
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Meet the new boss.

Same as the old boss; reference to Baba O'Riley noted...

Brendan Stromberger's picture
Joined: 26 Dec 2009 - 1:08am
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Being "banned from using Helvetica" is just as bad as using it all the time!
The typeface you choose should be on how well it does the job, not on some philosophical stance.

For the sake of the argument, why not choose a typeface based on a philosophical stance?

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Because the user doesn't [need to] care about the designer.
That said, making any decision at least partly based on
a personal philosophy is an unavoidably human thing.
It's just important not to do it with intent.

hhp

Brendan Stromberger's picture
Joined: 26 Dec 2009 - 1:08am
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Admittedly, I'm a young buck, but the whole thing seems pretty arbitrary to me. With modernism, so much design was based on personal philosophy, and that was the way to do it. I tend to believe that we are simply looking at these problems from a different perspective. Can we now say that our current perspective is better than before?

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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It's baaaaack...
http://www.engadget.com/2010/08/03/logitech-announces-alert-series-of-hi...

You could say it never left, but I think it's starting to ramp up for real.
Like that security camera - I don't think I'd seen one like that.

BTW, a true superellipse has no flat sides.

hhp

hoon kim's picture
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speaking of microgrammar.. it is such a handsome font!
it is about the past-future kind of imagining the future and i liked how stark it is
i'd picture it in something like total recall, demolition man, terminator kind of future i guess? at once have brooding, artistic elmeents too

anyways helvetica vs univers.... i'd go for the latter if i have to choose one.. it's slightly more elegant and geometrically appealing i think

Mark McDougal's picture
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The choice to use which face in the number discussed above: it's almost spiritual.

Helvetica reminds me of the airport signage of my youth, riding with my parents in a 707. Univers reminds me of the space program reaching out for the moon. Akzidenz Grotesk brings back the revelation from design school days when I discovered it was older than most sans-serif faces. Microgramma reminds me of space movies of the 1970s searching for space-age fonts to apply to sets and props.

To employ any of them in a specific design is like throwing the I Ching and becoming a typographical oracle. Helvetica's a little more voluptuous, Univers is a little more graceful, Akzidenz is a little more direct.

But then, I'm a positivist: I think just about every typeface is beautiful, if it can find the proper design environment in which to exist.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Well, I do hope mine is improving all the time! :-)

hhp

Uli Stiehl's picture
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Nick:

> Univers has the "supercurve" of the CRT

Do you think of CRT typesetting?

Universe was developed in the 1950s

see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Univers

(The Universe release year was 1957)

CRT composition was developed in the 1960s

see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digiset

(The Digiset release year was 1965)

Chris Lozos's picture
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"For the sake of the argument, why not choose a typeface based on a philosophical stance?"

The issue is wether the nature of the typeface chosen contributes to the communication of the printed piece it is used for. If it does, then it is a good choice (there may be several good choices possible). The attributes of the typeface being judged center around the needs of the target audience and the message being conveyed. The personal philosophy of the person who decides on the typeface is at best irrelevant in the "Audience, Purpose, Message" triumvirate of determinants. In some cases of coincidence, the type specifier's philosophy may echo that of the intended audience but this is not likely.

As an example: Assume some graphic designer was given the job of designing a poster for a joint presentation by Massimo Vigneli, and Josef Mueller-Brockmann. In this case, using Helvetica would be a fine choice of a typeface. If the designer were forbidden from doing so based on his bosses' philosophy of only using brush scripts, it would be just silly. That is not to say that it would now be impossible to do a proper poster--it would just interject an unneeded hindrance.

Craig Eliason's picture
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There was an exhibition a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum called "Vital Forms," on shapes like this throughout American design in the mid-twentieth-century. Catalog [[http://www.amazon.com/Vital-Forms-American-Design-1940-1960/dp/0810906198|here]] and archive of the exhibition [[http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/exhibitions/1202/Vital_Form...|here]].

Brendan Stromberger's picture
Joined: 26 Dec 2009 - 1:08am
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Ah, it is clearer to me now the nature of what we are talking about. I quite agree with that, dezcom.

Tell me if this would be an equally applicable example: A designer uses Helvetica (or Univers, or whatever) for the logo and branding of a kindergarten school in the United States, based on reasons on goals involving rationality and objectivity, and the hope that children should be exposed to these design ideals and philosophies at a young age, that they may be further propagated.

David Boni's picture
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I think both typefaces are just fine. I personally prefer certain glyphs from Helvetica versus Univers, notably R, G, C, and Q. They feel more solid, serious. But that’s just my from-the-heart-and-gut opinion.

I also don’t want to come up with a clever metaphor to describe the Helvetica-hate going on as outrageously snobby-sounding. Sorry guys. It’s tiring to note the fact that if I’m not wearing authentic Ray Bans with a Leica camera strapped around my neck while driving a Ford Torino and making layouts with the original cut of Akzidenz, someone out there will not be happy.

Mark Simonson's picture
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A "supercurve" is like the shape of a 1950s television (CRT) screen, a sort of squarish curve. Nothing to do with CRT typesetting.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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You don't have to be a snob to realize Helvetica's technical faults.
There's a whole world to type beyond mere superficial fashion/style.

hhp

William Berkson's picture
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Actually, I take back what I said about the super ellipse. I just looked at [[http://www.fritzhansen.com/en/fritz-hansen/designers.aspx#/piet_hein?i=i|these tables]] designed by Piet Hein and Bruno Mathsson in 1968, and they're gorgeous.

I guess it's a question of which super ellipse, and its use. A lot of stuff that came out which resembled this was lame, but the real thing is lovely.

Chris Lozos's picture
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akaczun ,

Please don't post ads in the discussion forums. There is a "Release Area" for that sort of thing.

William Berkson's picture
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I believe that Zapf has said he didn't know about the mathematical concept of the super ellipse when he designed Melior. He designed it in 1952, and the super ellipse became known more widely when Piet Hein, an engineer (and poet and cartoonist) in 1959 won a design prize for a round-about in Stockholm in a super ellipse.

Personally, I never liked Melior, though I do like the new Ibis, which has Melior ancestry, but doesn't do the same curves inside and out. Univers has a slight squareness, compared to Helvetica.

Chris Lozos's picture
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Melior was my favorite of the Zapf faces. The so-called super ellipse was also admired as a furniture shape for table tops.

William Berkson's picture
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Chris, this was due to Piet Hein's influence, as he was also a designer.

He is has been a hero to me because he did engineering, furniture design, poetry, cartooning, and was part of the anti-Nazi resistance. What a cool guy!

Here is the wikipedia article on him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piet_Hein_%28Denmark%29

And here are some of his designs, which you can still buy: http://www.piethein.com/usr/piethein/HomepagUK.nsf

But for some reason I never liked the superellipse!

Stephen Coles's picture
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Helvetica was drawn by an idealist. Univers was drawn by a type designer.

Carl Crossgrove's picture
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Univers is a further departure from the original 19th-century models. Helvetica is essentially a 19th-century grot cleaned up and sanitised for modern consumption. It's very monoline, the letters are very unified in shape and width. Univers takes the model and adjusts the widths, stroke contrast, curves and aperture to be more clean, soft, simple, and truly modern. If you compare Univers with AG or other older grotesques, it looks visibly newer. Unlike Helvetica, Univers has letters of more classic roman proportions; compare R, A, S, E, B and D between Helvetica and Univers to see this proportion modulation. Helvetica is nearly monospaced in its width consistency. Helvetica's apertures are more closed, most notably in c, a, S, C and e. Oddly, while Univers is as squarish as Helvetica, its higher stroke contrast relieves what in Helvetica is a blocky and heavy appearance. Univers is a more evolved design; Frutiger completely adapted it for 20th-century use. More important than all of these, Univers is spaced for text, which immediately makes it more suitable for small sizes.

Nick Shinn's picture
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Type represents the technology of its day.
Arial is a revival of Helvetica, which in turn is a revival of Akzidenz Grotesk, a 19th century letterform.
Helvetica has the shape of steam engine boilers and cast iron machinery.
Univers, on the other hand, has the "supercurve" (as Zapf termed it, and also used in Melior) of the CRT, the TV screen. This is more obvious, even, in Frutiger's original drawings. Novarese's Microgramma/Eurostile, is the most CRT-shaped face.
But ultimately, all those types still have a lot of lead in them, in particular that means quite subtle spacing (despite complaints about Helvetica as a text face).
More recent developments in type design take their sources from other media, less finely spaced than print. For instance highway signage (Interstate, DIN) typewriters (Officina), neon, and low res monitors. So now the vertical linearity of 'l' and 'i" become problematic, hence emergence of "some serifs" (to use the Berlow term) in sans faces, because these features help to moderate letterspacing.

Roy Wilhelm's picture
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Nick, very interesting analysis. Gosh, I love reading thoughtful texts about type.

And beautiful work with the Globe and Mail!

~Roy Wilhelm
a publication designer in Richmond, Va.

Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch's picture
Joined: 7 Feb 2007 - 10:21am
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*adds to project list for summer: make Helvetica v Univers text-figure animation fight à la stick-figure fighting videos*

«El futuro es una línea tan fina que apenas nos damos cuenta de pintarla nosotros mismos». (La Luz Oscura, por Javier Guerrero)

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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Both are better avoided (especially Helvetica, which is dated and gross).
But if you must ask the Helvetica vs Univers question, the answer is Unica.

hhp

Tiffany Wardle's picture
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Nick, that really is a great answer. Very thoughtful, as Roy said.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
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Blank's picture
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The big difference is personality. Being a revival of Akzidenz-Grotesk with the life sucked out, Helvetica has almost none. Univers, on the other hand, has a cool technocratic feeling that borders on arrogance. I prefer to see Helvetica as a big display face, so that those big bones take on a warm feeling. I use Univers when I need to set a bunch of text and want it to look thoughtful and precise, and carry an air of authority.

Eben Sorkin's picture
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Gurtler + Haas Unica related links

http://typophile.com/node/4840 -
http://typophile.com/node/18387 -
http://typophile.com/node/12529 -
http://typophile.com/node/30859

BTW I think Univers is always beguiling. Especially the numbers.

Charles Ellertson's picture
Joined: 3 Nov 2004 - 11:00am
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Interesting analysis Nick.

While different, just out of curiosity, how would you characterize Champion & Knockout?

Eben Sorkin's picture
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Re-reading this thread I wanted thank Rob for bringing up a question I thought I basically knew the answers to - and to Carl & Nick for answers extended my knowlege. Now I am keen for more questions about stuff I falsely think I already have my head around. Cheers!

Nick Shinn's picture
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James, what are your feeling about the new Univers compared with the old?

Knockout: strikes me as exemplifying hands-on engineering (which will make ad hoc adjustments to optimize the efficiency of each part) rather than the smoothly consistent systematic exigesis of design principles, and in that is characteristic of the 19th century.

You see that still in Helvetica, where the "a" has a foot serif in the light weights, but not in the bold.

Two references to support this view of the Victorian engineer: Brunel working himself to death on the details of his huge projects, because the appropriate infrastructure of a large engineering firm had yet to be developed; and Maudslay, inventor of the bench micrometer, the "finest man with a file" (sorry, can't find the exact quote), very much the craftsman.

Bruce Kennett's picture
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Interesting thread, everyone.

re: Brunel, I recommend a superb book called The Great Iron Ship by James Dugan (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953) that describes Brunel in loving detail as he worked on his masterpiece, the Great Eastern, which laid the transatlantic cable. Of course he did so much more than that, including railway right-of-way design, Temple Meads Station, bridges, and so forth. One cool cat.

Nick so rightly plants Helvetica's roots in the 19th century. Has anyone come across a comment that 19th-c. types wanted to express a kind of egalitariansim that was increasingly present in a society that was moving from industrial revolution into a time with much more social consciousness? It is so instructive to see a line of Helvetica set in A/C compared to something like Syntax or Penumbra, in which the allegedly desirable trait of all letters being "equal" actually reduces legibility and recognition of individual identity. I have the feeling that I read this perhaps back in early 70s when I first started getting passionately interested in type, but for the life of me I can't remember where.

Although HZ may refer to that meeting point between a square and a circle as "supercurve" I think we have to give credit to Gabriel Lamé and Piet Hein. Apparently there is some controversy as to whether HZ came up with the idea in Melior on his own, or if his abiding interest in things mathematical may have led him to see the work of these others at an earlier time, perhaps filing it away sub-consciously.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Lam%C3%A9

http://www.oberonplace.com/products/plotter/tutor/lesson2.htm

I don't get to come here as much as I would like to, but boy oh boy does Typophile give me good brain food! Not that everyone will read it in this one thread, but I hereby thank all of you for your curiosity, your wide-ranging interests, and your willingness to set them down in type for the rest of us to read. Great, great stuff.

julia dantchev's picture
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I guess in being a student I've been completely turned off by helvetica. Everyone uses it in excess, or they use the crazy scribbly freeware typefaces that are already messy.

In response to Nick's first comment, arial was created to try to beat helvetica for windows platforms, not to renew it, but in regards to everything else, right on.

I'm glad this discussion came up because I frequently argue with friends but it becomes an argument on form and usefulness and does not contain nearly as much historical background.

I discovered Univers about two years ago. I appreciate it for it's versatility and it will always be superior to helvetica in my eyes. Every possible combination of weights looks amazing together, and although I know this is subjective I really truly feel that way. I even refered to the actual universe as the "univers" in writing. Real smart, I know.

Nick Shinn's picture
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arial was created to try to beat helvetica for windows platforms, not to renew it,

I used the term "revival", which is a quite specific typographic euphemism. "Renew" has a more general meaning.

In other design areas, what we call revivals are often termed reproductions or imitations.

Adrian Frutiger created Univers from scratch -- starting with original drawings.

Hrant H Papazian's picture
Joined: 3 May 2000 - 11:00am
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> a quite specific typographic euphemism.

Actually it's used quite loosely by most of us.

hhp