Helvetica oblique - Helvetica bugs for ever

Uli's picture

One of the most striking peculiarities of font users is the fact that most font users do not care about the most elementary quality requirements of fonts.

Have a look at this picture:


Although Helvetica oblique has been available in all PostScript printers for more than 25 years and therefore is one of the most often used fonts, no font user ever noticed nor cared that the accented and non-accented letters have different side bearings with the consequence that Helvetica oblique is unusable for quality composition in languages with accented letters, e.g. French, German, etc.

A font user may be compared with a person who does not notice nor care that the black string on his left shoe differs from the white string on his right shoe.

quadibloc's picture

What do people do, when they find out that when they use Helvetica to print something in italics, that the accented letters aren't spaced properly on both sides?

I would have thought, like Uli, that at least some licensors of that font would have complained to Linotype by now, and Linotype would have fixed the problem. After all, Helvetica is a very popular typeface. So, whatever one may think of Uli's posting history in general, it seems like he has a very valid observation this time: either Linotype doesn't fix bugs, even when its users are screaming bloody murder... or nobody seems to care. This is pretty fishy.

However, there is one possibility. Let's imagine that, instead of Helvetica from Linotype, it was Dutch 801 from Bitstream that had this bug. Dutch 801 happens to look just like Times Roman. Times Roman is a really popular typeface.

What would happen, then, if someone bought Dutch 801 from Bitstream (or got it included with WordPerfect or Corel Draw), and experienced this shocking bug? Why, he would just use Times Roman as included with both the Windows operating system and OS X for italics in future!

Hello, Arial Italic. Hello, Swiss 721 Medium. Hello, Nimbus Sans.

Maybe Linotype hasn't been selling too many copies of that particular font, even if other fonts for very similar typefaces are selling like hotcakes.

Ray Larabie's picture

I wonder if Linotype even knows about this thread. You'd think they'd at least drop a comment or something.

Uli's picture

1) typodermic:

> I wonder if Linotype even knows about this thread.

As proved above (5.Jul.2010 10.17pm and 1.Aug.2010 1.05am),
Linotype in Bad Homburg (Germany) repeatedly downloaded

- this thread typophile.com/node/71858
- the pdf document helvetica-forever.pdf
- the jpg files Helvetica-oblique1.jpg, etc.

Linotype visits my own website and the typophile website regularly.

Examples for September ( = IP of Linotype Bad Homburg): - - [02/Sep/2010:08:54:29 +0200] "GET /forgers/helvetica-forever.pdf HTTP/1.1" 200 547832 "http://www.typophile.com/node/71858" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; de; rv: Gecko/20100722 Firefox/3.6.8 (.NET CLR 3.5.30729)" www.sanskritweb.net - - [02/Sep/2010:08:55:52 +0200] "GET /temporary/Helvetica-oblique1.jpg HTTP/1.1" 200 262205 "http://www.typophile.com/node/71858" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; de; rv: Gecko/20100722 Firefox/3.6.8 (.NET CLR 3.5.30729)" www.sanskritweb.net

etc. etc. etc.

2) quadibloc:

> What do people do, when they find out that when they use Helvetica to print something in italics, that the accented letters aren't spaced properly on both sides?

Since Linotype font buyers are dimwitted, they never find out.

That's why Bruno Steinert never cared to remove the Helvetica bug.

Why should you remove bugs never noticed by dimwitted customers?

A non-dimwitted person would never buy a defective Linotype font.

But dimwitted Linotype customers crave to buy defective fonts.

Therefore Helvetica is still on the Linotype bestseller list:


toad42's picture

Muckraking is an honorable profession, though widely reviled. It's worth noting that although as the saying goes "You attract more flies with honey than vinegar," many muckrakers eschew honey because they are too angry about the subjects they're writing about. Uli falls into this pattern. This approach loses him a certain percentage of his potential audience, who are put off by his tone and manners.

Nevertheless, the issue he is highlighting certainly does merit some public discourse, especially on a site dedicated to typographic quality. If there were even one remarkable thing about this topic, it would be worth discussing, but there are a handful: (1) that the sidebearings of the accented characters are off, (2) that the slopes are off, (3) that the unaccented characters, if their slope is adjusted, still does not match the distorted characters, which suggests (4) that the accented characters were inserted from a different font rather than created directly from the unaccented characters, (5) that these defects in this most popular and most publicly discussed typeface have nevertheless not been part of that discussion, and (6) that Linotype did not repair these embarrassing problems the moment they learned about them.

Uli mainly goes wrong in overgeneralizing his conclusions.

Certainly, it is disappointing that vendor response to these revelations has been inconsistent, but Uli's argument would be strengthened if he were gracious enough to acknowledge and praise Adobe for their progress. Even if he wishes the main page were also adjusted, even if he wished they'd dealt with it sooner, even if he wished they'd never offered a defective font in the first place, the fact remains that the improvement they've made is a step in the right direction, and it is basic good manners for anyone, let alone muckrakers, to praise the good as well as condemn the bad, lest they come off as merely bitter and aggressive. Still, his reaction doesn't change the validity of his initial observations. Had Uli expressed his reaction to the vendors as disappointment rather than calling them dimwitted, we would be hard pressed to disagree.

Likewise, it is disappointing that after so much has been publicly said about Helvetica, these clumsy flaws would nevertheless have remained largely undiscussed. For example, compare how much more attention has been paid to the degree to which Arial's design is copied directly from Helvetica; that has been a widespread Internet meme, a topic for countless articles and blogs, yet these errors in Helvetica Oblique are more problematic since they actually damage the font user's ability to properly set text. Further, even Anglophones have had plenty of opportunity to observe these flaws, since we live in a multilingual world and often need to set words (including names) from languages that require those accents, yet we've missed it. We must set aside the idea that these are obscure problems that it would be unreasonable to expect educated font users to notice. Only those with no typographic pretensions at all would find these problems to be obscure, especially since in English grammar we set words and expressions from other languages in italic, which increases our odds of running into these problems.

As much as I appreciate the loyalty of font designers toward their customers (actual and potential), I think we can all agree that the vast majority of font users are genuinely ignorant not only of the niceties of typography but of the basics as well. Had Uli expressed his criticism of font users in terms of widespread ignorance about typography rather than being "dimwitted," here too we would have found it difficult to argue.

The challenge for us upon encountering Uli's observations expressed the way he did is to sift past his anger and our own reactions to it so we can focus on the real typographical value he's adding to this discussion. Aside from the namecalling, he's right. It is a typographically disappointing state of affairs that such clumsy errors could be found in perhaps the most famous typeface of the twentieth century, that so few people would notices, and that the errors would not be immediately acknowledged and removed by the foundry. If Uli feels outraged about this and wishes to express that emotion publicly, he's certainly welcome to.

For my part, I feel more hopeful.

First, Typophile is part of a typographic renaissance, a renewal of interest in good typography. Uli's muckraking on this and other issues is also a part of that renaissance, in which many of us are in our various ways breaking with some unfortunate practices of our recent past to try once again to achieve a high standard of typography. The disagreements, defensiveness, and taking offense occurring around these discussions are par for the course within any passionate community that sets itself at odds with common practice, and are ultimately not as important as our common goals and our progress toward them.

Second, I see much improvement in recent years from foundries. The number of foundries dedicated above all to great typography is higher than in recent decades. Even the foundries who justly deserve criticism for their handling of the specific issues under discussion, such as Linotype's handling of Helvetica Oblique, have shown marked improvement. Consider how much more carefully designed and executed Optima nova is. One is unlikely to find any of Helvetica Oblique's defects in Linotype's Platinum series faces. Good, conscientious typography is no longer to be found only in a handful of superstar designers or isolated foundries.

Certainly there remains more room for improvement.

I'm sure we'd also like to see Linotype repair Helvetica Oblique, not just lavish their improvements on new font lines. But most of all, if we want to see the state of typography in the world improve we need to do something about the nearly complete lack of typographic education for font users. More than anything else Uli wrote about this issue, the complete absence of public notice of these defects in such a famous typeface is a sign of the times. We still have a long, long way to go.

quadibloc's picture

I have one other question. The fonts from Linotype may look funny on the screen. But a post in this thread noted that the same font would line up properly if more advanced screen display software, which cost money, was installed. But the same font. If I understood the post correctly.

Now, if those fonts don't produce bad spacing when one uses them to produce printed output on a laser printer, or a .PDF file - the "end product" where quality is critical - then the fact that things look funny in on-screen previews is something else that might be deemed inconsequential.

On top of the previous point that I raised, which is that the typeface Helvetica is so popular that many people will have the cheaper imitations instead of having purchased the original face. (Also, a lot of Helvetica-based typography just doesn't use italics, with bolding preferred for emphasis, if I remember correctly.)

So there may be other explanations besides people not caring.

Uli's picture


Very prudent*** comment.


*** "witted" in my parlance.

Werfer's picture

Strange - is it only me, or this error only in the OT Std version? The OT Com version seems fine, or what would you people say?

dtw's picture

Not wanting to rake over old coals, but it seems like this might be the best place to put the following question: are Helvetica Neue's numerals too short?
Our typesetters have just put a zero into a postcode; it looked too small at certain zoom levels, but I know Acrobat can deceive, so I zoomed in as far as possible and used a dialog box as a ruler (also printed it out and measured that): the zero and the four are definitely just slightly shorter than cap height - the zero should at least be taller than the four, surely. Seems a bit odd to me.

dberlow's picture

> Seems a bit odd to me.

Been that way forever though.

Uli's picture


If you use Arial, "4" and "T" will have the same caps height, but "0" (= zero) is higher than "4" and "T", due to overshoot (the top of "0" is rounded).

If you use Neue Helvetica, "T" is higher then "4", and "0" (= zero) is a high as "4".

dtw's picture

>Uli: Well, quite. Arial in this case does what one would expect (and what any of us would do if we were designing a font with lining numerals), but Helv. doesn't.

Uli's picture


Just for fun, I checked "Nimbus Sans Novus", which is a URW clone of Neue Helvetica.

If you use Nimbus Sans Novus, "4" and "T" will have the same caps height, and "0" (= zero) is also as high as "4" and "T", hence no overshoot for rounded top of "0".

riccard0's picture

It seems a feature of any and all versions:

dezcom's picture

Is there a law that says lining figures must measure the exact height of caps? This just seems like a design decision to me as an attempt to reduce the dominance of the figures when used with mixed and lowercase text. It makes sense to me with that kind of face.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Since many grotesques don’t have old style figures (anyone care to explain why?), the lining figures are designed to "reduce the dominance" in text. What Dez said.

dezcom's picture

"many grotesques don’t have old style figures (anyone care to explain why?)"

My guess is that the type in question came out before opentype and the developers kept them as they were even with the latest releases to have backwards compatibility and minimize reflow issues.

dan_reynolds's picture

"many grotesques don’t have old style figures (anyone care to explain why?)"

Most grotesques did not have them in metal, either. Modern typefaces (the "moderns" of the 19th century) were created with lining figures, not oldstyle figures. Maybe because they were primarily used for large, display settings. Or maybe because of some style grounds. Anyway, since grotesques are also children of that time, they follow that fashion.

blank's picture

"many grotesques don’t have old style figures (anyone care to explain why?)"

Grotesques don’t have old style figures because old style figures don’t work well when drawn to the proportions of grotesques. Old style figures need more space below the baseline than the short descenders of grots commonly allow. And because grots have always been common in advertising it’s been more important that they have figures appropriate for all caps settings than for book typography.

eliason's picture

I might also note that when grotesques first emerged they were caps-only.

riccard0's picture

"many grotesques don’t have old style figures (anyone care to explain why?)"

Some discussion here:

dtw's picture

>Chris (and after): fair enough. But if one were planning to make the numerals shorter "to reduce the dominance of the figures when used with mixed and lowercase text" surely one would make them significantly shorter - like the hybrid numerals we get now sometimes - rather than just marginally shorter, which looks like a mistake, even if it isn't one... ?

dezcom's picture


Remember the bad old days of 256k limit? Remember that the early digital type was taken from the original drawing for metal type?

There were reasons like:

• You didn't have enough slots for multiple sets of figures and Expert sets were but a small portion of the pie;
• Better to then have one figure size as a compromise than no boat in the water;
• Legacy drawings were ready to go compared with all the corporate decisions needed to add more;
• The first one to jump the pond wins! Meaning LinoType/Adobe were quick-off-the-mark with ready to roll accepted and proven favorite types, which would maintain continuity with what users already were accustomed to;
• "Do it now" was better than "Should have done it and missed the gravy-train years" of selling type. Business decisions drive business, not best practices.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Sounds very much like webfonts nowadays, Dez.

dezcom's picture

I'll bet you are right, Frode.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

I always find myself wanting to do stuff that people say can't be done, be it grotesque osf's or anything else for that matter. Great to see a two-story italic a in Carter Sans, Dan!

dan_reynolds's picture

Oh, thank Matthew! He drew that italic a. I don't know if I would have been bold enough to make it double story. I do like the way it looks, though.

Uli's picture

This thread was started one year ago in July 2010.

Today, one year later in August 2011, I checked:

The Helvetica Bug is still there:


I would have been surprised, if "Señor Wildenberg" or anyone else at the Linotype outfit had removed the Helvetica Bug during the past years. Nobody at Linotype cares. Why should they care? Consider what I stated at the top of this thread: "One of the most striking peculiarities of font users is the fact that most font users do not care about the most elementary quality requirements of fonts." So, why should Linotype and other font makers care to remove font bugs?

For your own Helvetica Bug experiments, consult these files:

Font Bug Website:


Select "Helvetica oblique OpenType Standard CFF"

Accented Test Text:

Señor Wìldènbèrg
Dírección Général
Hêlvêticâ Crâp Fôrever

Last-Year Screen Dumps:


Chris G's picture

Well done Uli, have a biscuit. I am surely not the only one waiting with baited breath for the inevitable 2 year update.

daverowland's picture

Ah, Uli, he's been quiet of late. I almost miss his rants.

Ray Larabie's picture

Keep going, Uli. I'm really curious about how this story will end. Fixing this bug would take me, and probably any font designer a few minutes.

Uli's picture


I think you could fix the bug in less than one minute by copying the correct font metrics values from the correct PostScript font to the defective OpenType font.

Correct PS T1 font: LT_51251.pfb, LT_51251.pfm, LT_51251.afm
Defective OTF font: HelveticaLTStd-Obl.otf

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