Geek's Corner: Helvetica: How does it make you feel?

Posted on April 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


‘Two fonts walk into a bar and the barman says, ‘sorry, we don’t serve your type in here’.
No other typeface has attracted so much attention and controversy as Helvetica. It’s had a film made in its honour, several books dedicated to it, a Myspace band named after it and it even has its own facebook appreciation group (but then again, what doesn’t?). Major companies including Microsoft, Gap, Orange, Evian, Panasonic and Apple use it almost exclusively (the interface for the iphone and all newer ipods use, you guessed it, Helvetica). It’s widely used by the US government: the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority use Helvetica for all subway signs, and the text ‘United States’, as well as the orbiter name on the exterior of the Space Shuttle Orbiter are stencilled in a Helvetica face.
Created by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffman at the Haas Sche Scriftgiesserei in Switzerland, Helvetica was designed to compete with ‘Akzidenz-Grotesk’ in the Swiss market. Originally it was called ‘Neue Haas Grotesk’, but this was changed in 1960 to ‘Helvetica’ (the latin name for ‘Swiss’) in an effort to make the typeface more marketable internationally.
The closest competitor to Helvetica by far and away is ‘Arial’, formerly named ‘Sonoran Sans Serif’. Originally created for IBM’s bitmap font laser printers, Arial is honoured with the prestige of being the default typeface on Windows. Designed in 1982 by Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders for Monotype, Arial has identical character widths to Helvetica. Even staunch followers of Helvetica find it difficult to tell the difference between the two: in fact, Mark Simonson wrote an article entitled ‘How to spot Arial’ to help avoid embarassing mix-ups.
Helvetica champions submit that Arial is a rip-off of their idol, suggesting that it was born of a hasty decision to avoid paying out huge licensing fees for a typeface that had grown to become the benchmark for most written communication, and arguing that Arial lacks the subtlety and elegance of Helvetica. But if Arial is an imposter of Helvetica, then Helvetica is a charlatan of Akzidenz grotesque and all other earlier grotesque faces. It’s just that none before it have had such a high-profile place in society, or been used by such a large number of businesses to sell their product.
Helvetica is a neutral typeface. It’s efficient, clean, crisp and safe.This is its main allure, but also its biggest weakness. Efficient can also be described as unambitious, clean as bland and safe as unadventurous. As much as the acclaimed face is loved, it is hated just as vehemently. Scores of chatrooms and blogs testify the typeface’s power to rile even the most passive typographer. Neville Brody, leading graphic designer and typographer explains, ‘typefaces control the message. The choice of font dictates what you think about something before you even read the first word.’ So next time you walk past ‘Eat’, remember that what you’re feeling is all commanded by a typeface, or on occasion your stomach, but mainly the typeface. So, how does Helvetica make you feel?
Is it really?
A typeface is a coordinated set of glyphs designed with stylistic unity. A typeface usually comprises an alphabet of letters, numerals, and punctuation marks; it may also include ideograms and symbols, or consist entirely of them, for example, mathematical or map-making symbols.
The term typeface is typically conflated with font, which had distinct meanings before the advent of desktop publishing. These terms are now effectively synonymous when discussing digital typography. One still valid distinction between font and typeface is that a font may designate a specific member of a type family such as roman, bold or italic type, possibly in a particular size, while typeface designates a visual appearance or style, possibly of a related set of fonts. For example, a given typeface such as Arial may include roman, bold, and italic fonts.
With thanks to Wikipedia (