Why Helvetica is not great
Type design is a rather obscure profession but even the typefaces themselves don’t get too much attention by the general public. Most people could only name a few typefaces, but among those few are always Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica. Well-known and popular or not, in this article I will show you why Helvetica is not the great typeface people perceive it to be.
Arial is often frowned upon due to its history, but what most people don’t know is that Helvetica has a very similar history. A bit different, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just as dubious and embarrassing. As most people who are interested in typefaces might know, Max Miedinger is the designer of Helvetica. However, what most people probably don’t know is that Max Miedinger was not a type designer. Miedinger studied typesetting between 1926 and 1930 and later became a typographer for Globus department store’s advertising studio in Zürich. As a typographer he obviously saw a lot of type, and he became a customer counselor and typeface sales representative for the Haas’sche Schriftgießerei (Haas Type Foundry), so without a doubt he had expertise in type. However, this is very different from being a type designer, and this tends to show.
In 1954 at around age 44 he designed his first typeface, called Pro Arte (figure 2). It’s a condensed Egyptian (slab serif) like many of its contemporaries. In general Pro Arte is quite nice, but the letters K, Q and the ampersand (&) show he isn’t quite the master type designer people nowadays may perceive him to be when they think of Helvetica. To humor you, this is what I perceive to be wrong with Pro Arte:
K – The slab serif on the arm and leg are positioned too far to the left. Or, if Miedinger would insist on keeping the gaps in between the slab serifs consistent with the gaps in H/U/V/W/X/Y, he would have to change the angle of the arm and leg a bit. It’s an easy fix, but it’s a bad mistake to make in the first place.
Q – I have to say, I find this swash-like tail of Q quite attractive, but then I would expect some elements of the same stroke weight somewhere else in the typeface. The tail is simply not heavy enough.
& – The ampersand looks like it belongs to a completely different typeface; the top isn’t heavy enough, the thin stroke should go more gradually from thin to thick (a bit more weight in the curves), the curves look wobbly and for some reason the ampersand features quite thin and elegant serifs. The glyph is simply more refined than all the other letters. Also, the fact that the glyph is slightly flattened at the left and top left and right sides makes it consistent with the large vertical parts of the slab serifs in other letters, but it makes the ampersand look quite awkward. I don’t know what the solution should be for this, but sufficed to say the current ampersand is seriously flawed.
Alright, so Miedinger didn’t do a perfect job with Pro Arte. That shouldn’t deter any type designer from making more typefaces. Eduard Hoffmann—who was director of Haas Type Foundry by the time Miedinger joined—recognized Miedinger’s talent and commissioned a new typeface. Not just any typeface, but a very specific design. At the time the typeface Akzidenz Grotesk (bottom line of figure 3)—released by Berthold Type Foundry in 1896 under the name Accidenz Grotesk—was hugely popular, and Haas Type Foundry became alerted to the fact that they were missing sales because all Swiss designers were specifying Akzidenz Grotesk from Germany. The Swiss wanted some of that market share, and so Haas Type Foundry requested a typeface like Akzidenz Grotesk.
Akzidenz Grotesk was based on Scheltersche Grotesk (released by Schelter & Giesecke Foundry in 1880) and both these typefaces served as models for Helvetica. In fact, if you compare Helvetica with Akzidenz Grotesk, you might notice the general proportions are exactly the same. Conscious decisions were made to keep the proportions the same so it was possible to substitute one typeface for another without having to re-set the whole text. This is also why Arial was designed with the same proportions as Helvetica. Arial was based on Grotesque 215 but redrawn to match Helvetica in weight and proportions.
In figure 4 you can see the authentic documents showing the working process of plagiarizing (or at the very least being greatly influenced by) Akzidenz Grotesk. The top lines on the right are Helvetica in progress and each second line is Akzidenz Grotesk. Image provided by Nick Shinn (type designer and founder of Shinntype).
While the antique grotesque typefaces were warm, Helvetica was designed to be neutral; compared to Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica is rather cold. This neutrality was exactly what the world of design needed at the time. Suddenly a lot of big companies got rid of their hand-lettered, decorative type and replaced it with this new typeface called Neue Haas Grotesk—which would later be called Helvetica so it would be easier to market internationally. While the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements were all about minimalist modernism, the post-war mentality abandoned austerity and embraced midcentury modernism; neutrality and impact were the new modern style—something which Helvetica (and the contemporary Univers) provided. As such Helvetica became a hugely popular typeface, and during the 60’s it had major impact on the advertising industry and on corporate branding. Not only was the typeface supposed to be neutral, but as Helvetica became synonymous with modern design, it also neutralized the whole design industry and impacted modern consumerism in a major way. It set some of the aesthetics we still cherish today, and Apple played a major role in that by using Helvetica as a system default typeface. Look at figure 5 for a comparison between a Coca Cola advertisement from the 60's (left) and the 70's (right) where Helvetica is used. It's still looking clumsy compared to contemporary marketing, but for the time this was a major improvement, and a big step towards commercialism as we know it today.
Helvetica may have been neutral in the 60’s, but ironically enough Helvetica is definitely not a neutral typeface. It’s quite cold, but not neutral. In fact Helvetica is highly prolific. In that sense—and only in that sense—Helvetica is like Eurostile; cold in design but highly prolific as a typeface. A typeface like Franklin Gothic is what I would consider more neutral. If you can recognize the typeface straight away, it’s obviously not a neutral design. As such, it's definitely not a typeface to use for any and every project. Every project should be treated individually, and so it seems unlikely that Helvetica would be the optimal choice for each project. In fact, Helvetica isn’t an optimal choice at all, but more about that later.
So Helvetica isn’t in fact neutral. Is it modern? Certainly it’s mid-century modernism, but since Helvetica is based on the same model as typefaces from the late 19th century, you can’t really consider that modern as in, contemporary. The design of ‘a’ with the curve going from the top of the belly to the stem is an antique design, stemming from the Egyptians (slab serif typefaces) from the early 19th century. So next time you’re selecting a modern typeface for your project, consider if you want genuine modernism or 19th century modernism. There is nothing at all wrong with 19th century modernism, but it has to fit the context. Although, for me personally I can imagine a typeface working well even if it doesn't fit the context. For example, to create contrast. So I guess fundamentally what concerns me more is the fact that people choose typefaces based on ignorance. Just like all other aspects of a design—such as composition, use of color, symbolism, symbology etc.—the choice of typeface is very important and needs to be carefully considered. I have to admit though, even as a type designer and typography, selecting the right typefaces can be very challenging. Partially because there are so many things to consider, but also because design is subjective anyway. First you need to know the facts though. How you may deviate from certain facts or design principles is your responsibility and possibly your obligation as a designer; to consider all aspects and bend it according to what you think fits the product best. It's partially an intuitive process, but with knowledge and logic at its base.
A default typeface
Have you heard the phrase ‘When in doubt, use Helvetica?’. If you have, forget it immediately. As I explained, every project needs to be treated individually, and so when you’re in doubt you should either do more research on typography and branding, or do more market research on your product. Simply selecting Helvetica when in doubt is lazy, and you’re not much of a designer by doing so. In fact, Helvetica has become so prolific that although it’s still considered a designer typeface, it’s actually increasingly becoming the amateur designer’s typeface. It comes with OS X by default and for a Windows user it’s also very easy to get, and the problem with these kind of default fonts is always that everyone has already seen them, and any amateur has access to it and will likely misuse the typeface—which further stigmatizes the typeface just like it did with Comic Sans. Besides, Helvetica is absolutely everywhere on the streets, and I simply tire from seeing it. Many designers still cling to Helvetica, but a truly professional designer won't limit himself to one typeface, or select a typeface for a project because it's his favorite. A type designer or typographer may not even want to use Helvetica at all, both because they recognize there are better typefaces around or because they want to avoid using a system default font to avoid any negative connotations.
Helvetica is by no means a bad design. It could easily be improved (have you noticed the weak design of the belly of ‘a’?), but it was a wonderful typeface in the 60’s and 70’s and it’s still a nice typeface today. But have you seen other sans serif typefaces lately? I strongly suspect that if Helvetica is your favorite typeface, you simply haven’t seen a lot of professional typefaces. Typefaces like Trivia Grotesk, Voice, Bulo, Sixta, Adelle Sans, Argumentum, Supria Sans and Air Soft are certainly not for every project, but they’re very attractive grotesque typefaces. Grotesque isn’t my personal favorite style though (but personal preference shouldn’t matter much when considering a typeface for a project); I’m very fond of humanist sans typefaces and typefaces with some quirks. Typefaces like Winco, Ideal Sans, Sonus, Tabac Sans (Figure 8), Andes, Uniman and Karmina Sans are absolutely amazing to me. Speaking of quirks, I still admire the classic Gill Sans. Interestingly though, I initially hated the typeface for being so awkward and "imperfect", but as I learned more about typefaces and type design, I came to admire the typeface for the reasons I started out hating it. This makes me think sometimes typefaces are a bit like an insiders joke; only few people will truly understand what the typeface is about. This can be rather frustrating for type designers because our main target audience are graphic designers, who generally know quite a bit about typography but not about typefaces. At the same time though, that's the type designer's challenge and tool, to play with such differences in our perceptions of design. This is also why there are never enough typefaces and there will always remain a gap in the market. You would think every style and concept has been done already when it comes to typefaces, but once you really study it, you become aware to how many gaps there are yet to fill, and how many highly unique typefaces are being released each year.
Better alternatives to Helvetica
If you’re simply in love with Helvetica’s aesthetic though, there are still plenty of better alternatives and even better renditions of the Helvetica model (like Aktiv Grotesk [bottom line of figure 9], Vaud or Haas Unica for example). If you enjoy the general style of Helvetica [top line of figure 9] but you want something less antique, Univers is a great alternative. It should also be said that Helvetica is nice as a display type, but it’s very bad in long texts; it tires the eye easily. On the web Helvetica is off even worse, as it renders horribly on Windows. For the web I would much rather use Arial than Helvetica because the hinting is better, so it renders better on screen. I believe Helvetica Neue renders better on the web, but most companies seem to use Helvetica rather than Helvetica Neue.
By the way, is it not strange that Arial is frowned upon for being a copy of Helvetica, while Helvetica is a copy of Akzidenz Grotesk and Akzidenz Grotesk is a copy of Scheltersche Grotesk? When people seem to speak from authority, we tend to listen to what they have to say, but in the design field a lot of opinions are often mistaken for facts, and a lot of these opinions are often based on ignorance. Arial is not the horrible typeface people make it out to be, and Helvetica is not the great typeface people make it out to be. Neither one is absolutely amazing to me, but they're both good typefaces. The reason for writing this article is not to mock Helvetica, its history or its designer, but rather to offer perspective from a professional type designer, and so you might reconsider whether to use Helvetica for your next project. Not because it's a bad typeface, but because we've seen it far too often for over 50 years, there are an impressive amount of other professional typefaces to choose from, and no typeface is perfect for each and every project. It’s nice to have a favorite typeface, but it doesn’t speak of a good designer to use a typeface because it's your favorite. Choose your typefaces as objectively as possible.