Tips and tricks for designing with Helvetica Neue

Maurice Meilleur's picture

I'm starting a print and web project that will use Helvetica almost exclusively, at text and display sizes, for web, brochures, postcards, bookmarks, posters, wayfinding signage, and so on. I've seen the face used quite nicely--for example, by Gary Hustwit and many of the designers shown in his Helvetica, and in Lars Müller's Helvetica books. But I've also seen it used poorly, and I have seen that even the Neue cut has its problems in use--like having only tabular figures, for example, so that the 1 has a mile of space around it.

So I'm curious: what would people who've used the face successfully advise a newcomer like me to do to make sure I get the most out of Helvetica Neue? I'm looking for GREP suggestions in InDesign to deal with the 1 and other spacing problems, general tips or rules of thumb for leading, kerning, and tracking--anything you've hit upon that made working with the face better. (This includes other Typophile threads that I might have overlooked, by the way.)

(P.S.: I'm really not interested in starting a discussion about whether we all like or hate Helvetica, whether or not it's the best face for this particular job, or whether another face would work better. I'm satisfied it's an appropriate choice for the project, and I'm really just looking for advice for using it from people with more experience and expertise than I have.)

William Berkson's picture

I think Erik Spiekermann in the Helvetica movie—I forget whether it's the main movie or the out-takes—nails it as far as a general guideline. He says that Helvetica is "fat in the middle", so it needs a lot of space around it, in this case white space. A few words in a bold weight, artfully placed with a lot of white space around it, and it can look great. In extended text, "it looks like dog shit," to quote Paul Rand.

JoergGustafs's picture

btw, it’s ‘Neue Helvetica’, not ‘Helvetica Neue’ ;P

Jan's picture

btw, it’s ‘Neue Helvetica’, not ‘Helvetica Neue’


riccard0's picture

btw, it’s ‘Neue Helvetica’, not ‘Helvetica Neue’

From a German grammatical perspective, indeed it is.
Unfortunately, from an American marketing perspective, it isn't:

blank's picture

A few words in a bold weight, artfully placed with a lot of white space around it…

It doesn’t even really need white space once it’s big. I think that’s the real strength of Helvetica; the bold just beats everything out there if you make it huge and track it tight. Add any crazy contemporary color combination and it’s the design equivalent of a spiked bat. Unfortunately that has resulted in designers assuming it’s good for other things, and it really isn’t.

Nick Shinn's picture

If you're going to use "tight but not touching" for display setting, then make sure that no letters touch.
This will require extensive manual kerning (bottom), as the default spacing (top) is designed for text.
If you merely track closer (centre), the effect doesn't work.
BTW, this spacing technique relates to two specific technologies that were popular in the 1960s, phototypositor and dry transfer (Letraset).

Here are a couple of examples of this retro look, the first from a 1969 Pepsi ad, the second from a 2003 American Apparel ad.

Tomi from Suomi's picture

With and without spur, on the last image.

That should keep things simple.

(And on the text on top there is that original Helvetica start of a spur…)

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Those are great samples, Nick--thanks. Good models.

poms's picture

>great examples
"" especially "american" is off!

For text sizes:
I would try set it as loose as the Neue Helvetica-character allows. It needs a generous line-height. The numbers are problematic, especially in small sizes, check combinations of 0369 because of its stylized, closed forms that it makes them hard to differentiate. Regarding the tabular numbers, changing "metric" to "optical" helps a bit. Tracking manually would do better of course.


pers0n's picture

I've noticed lots of people like to use it bold and with all uppercase letters for short words or headings

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