Helvetica: Not Everyone’s Type

| 1/23/2008 10:33:55 AM

HelveticaLike all graphic designers, I’m faced with the eternal question: Is Helvetica a typeface I should use? Or should I avoid it at all costs? The film documentary Helvetica, which is now out on DVD, may provide some answers. Helvetica is chock full of legends from the design and type worlds weighing in on the most ubiquitous of typefaces. Not surprisingly, their answers pretty much depend on when they came of age as designers. Designers have alternately embraced and reviled Helvetica since it was introduced in the American market in the late 1950s, and the debate continues to this day. Is it the typeface of capitalism, or socialism? My conclusion from watching Helvetica is that it is both. The designers of the ’50s and ’60s were correct to embrace it for its neutrality, and designers of the postmodern era were correct to reject it for its stodgy corporate connotations.

Stephanie Glaros

Joyce Hardin
1/25/2008 9:11:21 PM

I like a sans serif type on the screen, but recently seeing a page someone had printed out to use as a script for a presentation, I was struck by the clarity and readability of the typescript. It was Palatino! http://web.mac.com/jhardin2

Don Bates_1
1/25/2008 3:56:39 PM

Times Roman and other serif typefaces are the most popular in the Western World (what, in 90% of books and newspapers?) for a very simple reason: They're vastly more readable for conventional text. No less than the great graphic designer, Milton Glazer, weighed in on this issue years back and confirmed it to me in an interview I did with him by phone for a short article on this very topic. Serif typefaces have also proved the best for reading text in tests by independent researchers and publishers. So, if you care seriously about readability and you're working with books, magazines, journals, etc., Times Roman or something similar is the way to go although I must say I much prefer sans serif for headlines, short ad copy and call-outs. Whether serif fonts are more readable for Web site text or e-mail is another matter although I tend to lean in their direction for these purposes. They seem to read better on the "flickering" screen.

John Parfitt_4
1/24/2008 5:40:49 PM

There is no one answer to this, or to the selection of any typeface, as any competent typographer must know. To include a political position as part of the choice isn't entirely crazy - the abandonment of Gothic in Germany was certainly politically inspired - but it's not something which should come high on the list of factors to take into account. And who says Helvetica is the most used typeface anyway? If you are counting pages of print I would say Times New Roman would be high on the list.

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