Helvetica and "new media designers"

A quick question,

why is all the "new media designers" (quotes because the title is absolutely stupid) so obsessed with Helvetica?

They seem to think it's the best typeface the world has to offer, I definitly do not agree...

27 Apr 2002 — 3:14pm

Because they think being generic (which Helvetica actually hasn't been for a while now) will make everybody their customer.

My favorite description of Helvetica is by GG Lange, who equates it with a short-torsoed long-armed village idiot.

I myself have a trademark on "Helvomita".


wow. I'll snatch that trademark. Thank yooo! :)

On the other hand, you can be "generic" but still tasteful... I mean, what about frutiger for instance?

The many weights available for Helvetica is a plus though...

Frutiger is dated too.

To me, the current generic is FF Kievit:

> The many weights available for Helvetica is a plus though.

Except they have inconsistent features.
(Although they fixed that in the Neue.)


That was nice. I don't agree frutiger is dated... it has a timeless quality that I like. As for what helvetica series, I was talking about the neue...

I'm going to slightly disagree here and admit that I actually LIKE Helvetica. (GASP!) :) I mean the font, not most uses of it.

Unfortunately, it's become so commonplace and so accessible that it's very often ruthlessly abused by unskilled hands.

Computers have aided and abetted this trend, but it was true even before the days of desktop publishing. Helvetica began suffering its vicious cycle of abuse in the '60s and '70s, as "generic" became a trendy design thing.

In my opinion, Helvetica (whether the original or the "Neue" series) is at its most beautiful when used as a display font (perhaps the way some woodcut faces would be used), taking advantage of its range of weights and widths as well as its graceful and more subtle shapes. It should be incorporated into the design, rather than simply plastered mercilessly across a page like so much eggshell latex semi-gloss paint. The IRS and Adobe Acrobat will spend decades in Purgatory for their crimes against Helvetica.

Don't malign the font just because 99% of its users are abusing it. Hasn't it been through enough pain? After all, this plain "generic" font became as popular as it is (before computers) for a reason.

Arial can't claim this. It was hacked out, mass-marketed and force-fed to hapless computer consumers.

A few moments spent flipping through any preferred design annual or an issue of "Graphis" proves how stunningly Helvetica can be used, in the right hands.

(Helvetica sympathizer)

David makes a very good point about Helvetica at display sizes, and I too like it. The incredible range of weights seems to me to be testament to its robust underlying structure. The Helvetica "S" is one of the most remarkable lettershapes ever, in my opinion.

Actually, I disagree with the "S", I've heard many people saying that they find it one of the most beautiful characters in a typeface. The reason I disagree is that (even at display sizes) the S closes itself, and breaks the reading direction... I might be off here, but that's just what I "sense" when looking at it.

I have one helvetica love though, The rounded series just makes me smile for some reason :)

What ever happened to Zuzana Licko redoing Helvetica and adding true italics. I can't recall where I heard about this, but I do recall contacting Emigre and not getting any reply.

Carbon brakes on a Pinto.


I'll try a response charged with a little less
bias <wink>...

Emigre may not have done it, but the wonderful
Mr. Éric de Berranger sure did. He trained with
Porchez, but I think he surpasses JFP on many
levels. Check Helwissa and the rest.


My recollection about the Licko effort that Ole mentioned is that this was Zuzana's contribution to an article in one of the design magazines a couple years back. I thought it was Critique -- but I couldn't find the article in my collection, so perhaps it was another.

If I remember correctly, the magazine asked several designers to revamp a logo or a design. Zuzana was asked to update Helvetica. In her response, I think she said that she didn't feel that Helvetica should be redesigned, but that it could benefit from a true italic and so that's what she contributed.

I don't think the project was ever meant as anything more than an exercise.

-- Kent.

Kent is right but it was HOW magazine.
Feb 2000 issue, "Anatomy of a Redesign"
The Licko Helvetica bit is on Page 69.
Very brief and speculative.
Letters "a" and "z" are examined as a roman,
oblique and then Licko's true italic version.


That's the one. Thanks, Eric. Looking back at the article, it seems to me that Licko's prototype italic 'a' is too heavy at the top and bottom of the bowl. Or, conversely, the stems are too light.

-- K.

I wouldn't go that far. Once in a blue moon Helvetica is a very good choice. Sure, it's usually a sad occasion, but serving the client/user often means holding back the tears. :-)


I had a design savvy client that used Helvetica for years on absolutely everything.
I did a bit of re:design of helvetica myself for this client by doing a unicase to be used on a few web banners. They are on back-up but i will try to dig em' up and do a post later this week.

Here are a couple of attempts from the seventies to redesign Helvetica:

Helvetica Moditalic and Helvetica Flair

Lol, the "helvetica flair" made me chuckle :)

These typefaces used to make me cringe (esp. Helvetica Flair). I still cringe, but with a pang of nostalgia. It's only a matter of time before somebody with a sense of irony revives HF. If there's a Helvetica revival, the mutants can't be far behind.

I used to cringe at Avant Garde Gothic too, but these days I view it more as an interesting experiment in geometric sanserifs and ligatures. You must admit, it does have a wide array of innovative ligatures. Unfortunately, these aren't included with most digital cuts of the face.

The fact that Avant Garde Gothic looks terribly dated today may have more to do with its overuse (much like the much-maligned Helvetica) than with its intrinsic design. When it is used well (and, admittedly, that is an extremely rare occurrence) it can shine.

Like Helvetica, it is at its strongest when used as a display font rather than a text face.

Having said that, however, I also should admit that I rarely (if ever) use it.

I can, however, envision a day (perhaps in the far-flung future :D ) when it might become fashionable again. After all, who would have thought that woodcut fonts would have ever returned to a state of vogue? Yet they have, several times, and they still pop up in stunning design even today. Again, it's all in how they are used.

(Seemingly becoming a homely font sympathizer in general) :)

in reply to post #1:

i think one of the reasons its so popular these days in general is because of TheDesignersRepublic. they use it quite heavily in all their work, web and print.



helvetica is god... the fact that people are talking about it on this forum to this degree is testament enough to that. like i said yesterday helvetica is a great all around typeface because it sets very well for titling/display as well as for moderate amounts of copy. helvetica is and will remain a classic type specimen.

Alright, alright... can't we talk about something else instead?!

iota, the popularity of helvetica stems way beyond the fact that a flash in the pan group (who i do in fact love) like the designers republic use of it. it even goes further then the fact that it is just a great all around face. it's popularity stems from the fact that postmodernism has eaten itself alive and returned to it's roots in modernism. the modernist aesthetic is alive and kicking again because of postmodernism. how ironic it is but then again it can be expected from a movement as ironic as postmodernism. because helvetica rose to the forefront of the modernist movement it has become a shoe in as far as the retro mimicry of postmodernism is concerned. but it's the fact that it is such a great face that people have fallen in love with it again.

hahahahaha. keith, it will never end. helvetica will take over the world. it is already half way there resistance is futile... just submit.

AGFA-Monotype has set up a lot of these dummy sites
that link to fonts.com, but they forgot to proofread.

People can use Helvetica all they want. I won't give in.

I'm just wondering what you think of Avant Garde? One of my instructors at school said that it's like 'processed cheese'. I couldn't agree more. And Helvetica is processed Swiss cheese :-) Not really the real thing. Univers is the real thing.


BTW, there's a Frutiger interview in issue #2 of the recently launched "TYPO" (a lustrous garnet of a magazine from the Czech Republic), and one thing he says is: "Helvetica is not really the best typeface for legibility. Weingart said, if someone is using Helvetica he doesn't know anything about typography."


And jay, PoMo isn't dead - it was simply hijacked. It managed to escape, but now it's lost, and trying to find its true home.


i didn't say it was dead i just said it's contradicting itself in such a way that it seems like it's on it's last legs. though contradiction is at the heart of postmodernism it's own contradiction could mean it's in it's glory days.

weingart ,shmienghart... i know he's mister modern but have you ever looked at his work? it's not that good. helvetica is god. just submit to it. it will treat you well.

Hey, Life is contradictory.
Modernism is for kids.

> Weingart

Although what I've heard about his teaching style makes me admire him, I don't like his actual work, no. But at least he eats real cheese.


keith, i think avant garde has too much character and is much too geometric. i don't really put helvetica into that same category as avant garde. i think avant garde is more of a display than anything else. you could never set copy in it. univers on the other hand is just not a very handsome face. i've seen many of my contemporaries at art center come over to the darkside on the univers/helvetica issue. univers is just too organic in it's letterforms. i'd rather use akzidenz or even frutiger over univers. helvetica is more ridged than universe that's obvious but why use a half breed face like universe that doesn't do a good job of being either geometric or humanist.

Hrant, life is contradictory. i think the modernist new this. this little fact of life though doesn't necessarily make postmodernism correct. it's not that i don't value postmodernism i just think that at the end of the day when all conceptual sides have been analyzed into the ground, a decision still needs to be made. systems like modernism work in a much more fluid and economical manner because the decision is easier to arrive at. to discredit the modernist does the same to discredit postmodernists. one springs from the other. which is also part of life.

sorry hrant, i meant to say "knew"

As primarily a writer and reader, and secondarily a typofile, I emphatically agree with those who say that Helvetica is a rotten text face.

A whole page of Helvetica, especially set wide, is an actual pain to read. I want to kick the person who designed the page whenever I see such a horror.

I really think this is something that can be settled by testing. If you set a page in Helvetica and in, say Adobe Caslon or any of the classic serif types, and ask people I bet you you will get an overwhelming majority of people who say that the Helvetica is harder to read.

The merits of Helvetica as a display face are a matter of taste, but as a text face I think that those who say it is readible are radically and provably wrong, wrong, wrong.

After years of cursing pages - especially letter sized - with Helvetica I thought that no sans could be even decent for extended text. I was astonished by the PDF of Vesta at GerardUnger.com, which is quite readable.

The Humanist sans generally are much better in readibility - Bliss is my favorite for its elegance, but I still can't see the point of using a sans for extended text. They have a lot of other good uses, of course.

william... realistically with the ideal of "cool" out there who is going to be setting things in caslon. you'll look like an old fart. but maybe you are (and that's cool with me). these typefaces though great where built stylistically for different types of output. i'm not dismissing the past because reading a book set in metal that has been letterpressed is a pleasure (i own a letterpress so it's known that i love the stuff) but most things aren't done that way anymore and in case you haven't noticed we aren't going back anytime soon. as far as books go, yes, nobody wants to see cool and hip when they are reading the latest pulp novel but we are talking about moderate amounts of copy here e.g. annual reports. as far as helvetica as a display it's one of the better faces out there. it is much closer to being geometric, which make it a shoe in for display. that's why you see so much of it in use as display. this argument is getting very boring for me by now. i'd rather discus something more interesting like postmodernism vs. modernism. helvetica is a great face this has been decided by the collective not just me.

john is correct and the definition will be a slippery fish until we as a culture have moved beyond postmodernism. only then will the definition of the movement be clear

Modernism says Life is entirely "resolvable". Post-Modernism counters that you can control some things to some extent, but in the absolute, Life is beyond total comprehension.

I'm a Post-Modernist. Which is not at all the same thing as being a hooligan, or a fatalist.


> william... realistically with the ideal of "cool" out there who is > going to be setting things in caslon. you'll look like an old fart. > but maybe you are (and that's cool with me).

Jay, I really don't think that's very nice... Caslon has its place, and when you need comfortable, prolonged reading then it's a great choice. I don't think we as designers are simply making cool things. I'm proud to say that I'm NOT a 'cool' designer. I'm a reader-centered designer. Though I can be cool if a project needs me to be cool.

hahahahahaha. sorry keith that did sound mean. i just write in a very plain simple and honest manner. i don't always mean to offend. i do agree with you on many levels. i think we are all postmodern thinkers here and can see many sides. i'm only bringing up the cool/hip side. it is an important issue, you will never be able to ignore it and it is what gave birth in the past to many of the ideals that you guys are holding up as the be all end all to design.

From the PDF listed below:
Modernism & Postmodernism
from Lecture by Jeffrey Keedy, April 1998
modern = contemporary
modernism = ideology
postmodernism = a concept for a minute
Modernism = style and ideology, articulation of form, formalist, rationalist
Postmodernism = reaction, but not a rejection of Modernism. Erasing of boundaries, theory of discourse (most rejected)

Again. An interesting read is J. Keedy's article in the last edition of Emigre --- Modernism 8.0 --- the top link has a summation.

Some interesting reading for all of you.

PDF http://www.foothill.edu/fac/manske/Lecture_notes/PDF/Postmod_Graphic_Des.pdf

the other thing that needs to be understood here keith is that i started my career being as naive as the next guy that posts here. i was only concerned with hip/cool. i then moved into the educated and conservative idealism of a type snob (much like hrant). but as a true postmodernist, i am now in a phase of rebirth and am moving back over to the other side. it's just not that fun being a typographic stick in the mud all the time. you have to have some fun.

that's a great post tiffany

I'm having a blast. We don't enjoy the same things.
I especially revel in trying to educate you! :-)


hahahahahaha. little do you know that i've already been educated by the best of the best.

now i'm in a state of relearning what it is about type and design that got me into the whole mess.

Hmmm. Jay, you did mean to say, "The best of the best [in Southern California.]" Right? I'm enjoying this typographic parlance myself, but you have yet to say, "in my humble opinion".

Now. In my humble opinion, the amount you pay for school and/or the amount you owe to the government when you finish, does not guarantee that one will have been educated by the best of the best. ;^)

No matter what we do we're living in a post-modern world. The beauty of it is we agree on disagreeing. No matter how 'Modernist' a piece of work might be, we won't be seeing it under the same light as our predecessors, because our world is not the same any more. So, a so-called 'Modernist' piece of design is simply a 'style' we pick from the 'big closet' in order to sell something to a particular group of 'target audience', who happen to be hip and cool and trendy yuppies. The same goes for 'traditionalist' designs.

I think we not only live in a post-modern world, we also live in a multicultural world (at least in this part of the world). That even renders so-called 'movements' like Post-modernism and/or Modernism at best redundant, or at worst, meaningless. It's time to lose the 'isms' and focus more on what we are supposed to do: to communicate visually. As long as we keep our goal in mind, and to continue to be passionate about what it is that we're doing, then we'll be alright.

I have two opposing views about typography: one of which is that typography is first and foremost about communicating the textual content as efficiently as possible; the other is utilizing the semantics of type to give design work particular 'atmospheres' or emotional responses. The first one is based on linguistic requirements and it's what 'traditional' (book) typography was (is) all about. The latter is based on visual requirements, which is what graphic design is about, mostly. Of course, these two views are not mutually exclusive and it is up to us to strike a balance between the two.

tiffany, last time i checked art center was still on the top of the list, not only in the US but in the world.

as far as money = best is concerned, the capitalist system that we live and breath in has set up the ideal that the more you pay the better quality you get. it's not my opinion just the world at large. in my humble opinion though art center cost much more then it should. no design education should cost that much. design is cheap an education in it should be as cheap.

"In my humble opinion, the amount you pay for school [...] does not guarantee that one will have been educated by the best of the best. ;^)"

well said, Tiffany! I've been working hard to explain this position to others as of late. far too many of the indiscriminately Helvetica-wielding "new media designers" I've met have come from the sort of schools people brag about, offering claims such as "best of the best" in regards to their education.

keith, well put, i agree, but it is the isms that keep it all in check. with out them we have no reference points. in the end, like life, design is a duality that swings from side to side.

plain clothes, going to the best schools in the world guarantees that you will be taught by the best. these institutions draw those kinds of professors. it's just plain stupid to think other wise. what they don't do is guarantee that students graduating will themselves be great. just that they will have been taught by the greats of their time.

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