The Typehead Chronicles: Helvetica
      Of Thomas Christensen, ABCedminded Typesetter  

homeward bound



Helvetica (and some comments on Arial)

Identifying Characteristics

  • two-storied a (with curves of bowl and of stem)
  • narrow t and f
  • square-looking s
  • bracketed top serif of 1
  • rounded off square tail of R


Max Miedinger designed the typeface then called Haas Grotesk in 1957 for the Haas foundry of Switzerland. It was released by Stempel as Helvetica (from Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland) in 1961. In 1983 Stempel and Linotype redesigned the font to better coordinate the various weights of the font; the result is called Neue Helvetica.

Arial is a reworking of Helvetica by Robin Nicholas for Monotype in 1982. It is even blander than Helvetica. The main differences in Arial:

  • a has no tail (and is awkwardly shaped, to my eye)
  • top of stem of t is angled
  • no spur at bottom of G
  • straight leg of R
  • ends of S, C, etc., are angled in Arial (horizontal in Helvetica)

Character and Use

Ubiqitous, praised for its "neutrality" (like its namesake, Switzerland). It seems to have a faux modernist quality to some people -- it was used by Quentin Fiore in his design of Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage. Long regarded as a working man's face, lately we have seen it used by the ad people in "elegant" contexts. It seems to be a sort of palimpsest.

It used to be advised to set it tight but these days who knows?

Most people will be viewing these web pages in Helvetica (or Arial), not because it would be my first choice in print but because I prefer to use a font that is widely available, and while serifed fonts are more legible in print the opposite is true on the low resolutions of the web.

Alternatives to Helvetica

Univers is the obvious one, but FontShop has a list of several more alternatives to consider, here.

Say What?

"Helvetica is the perfume of the city."

      -- Lars Müller, Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface

"Not invisible, just boring."
Alastair Johnston, of "Velveetica"

"Today, the preferred fonts are traditional, conformist, utilitarian, boring and banal - in short, a fascist aesthetic. What dupes we have become, to believe that "timeless and neutral" is a virtue in a typeface! It is time to retire Helvetica and its cohorts, designed long ago and far away, and once again make typography expressive of local culture, here and now."
      -- Nick Shinn



 helvetica poster




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