Helvetica: The typestyle they love to hate

People who may not know much about lettering or graphic design, who may not even know the name of any other letter style, know what Helvetica is.

What has never failed to amaze me, however, is the depth of feeling this typestyle engenders. Historically, Helvetica has been popular among professional designers—as well as amateur end-users, the desktop publishing crowd. This is understandable, since Helvetica, or a clone, was packaged as part of so much software. Yet there has been a growing and vocal anti-Helvetica backlash for quite some time now. And among those who dislike it, there are some for whom the feeling is almost hatred.

And while many describe Helvetica as a neutral or boring letter style, emotions toward it are anything but neutral. Resentment is deep and passionate. One person I know made the striking comment that using it “betrays a lack of integrity.”

Am I the only one who thinks this wrath a bit odd? This is just a typeface, right?

It’s not about politics, religion or broccoli, the traditional hate-button issues. It’s only a letter style.

Before anyone accuses me of being a Helvetica lover—well, I’m not. I’ll admit, though, that this has not always been the case. I overindulged in Helvetica in the past. In my youth I used it inappropriately, wildly. I didn’t really have an excuse. It was easy to do, it was available, I didn’t have to think. But all that is behind me now. What’s done is done and I’ve moved on. I’m a more enlightened designer.

Still, the virulence of the indignation toward Helvetica leaves me a little baffled. I know it has its bad points. But how bad are they, really?

A particularly bitter commentator, Alastair Johnston of Smashing Magazine describes Helvetica letters as “square and squat and [they] don’t communicate with their neighbors.” Okay, that seems to make sense. He continues by explaining that there is more internal space in the counters than around the words, creating “ugly and standoffish silhouettes.” Well, this does sound un-neighborly.

I will admit that lines of letters with tall x-heights and open counters, like Helvetica, can give the appearance of being riddled with noticeable holes of negative space, kind of resembling Swiss cheese. Is that why Johnston describes the self-enclosed nature of the letters as “constipated-looking.” Too much cheese? He also compares using Helvetica to eating foods that are downright unhealthy, stating that when people prefer Helvetica to Arial because the latter is a bad copy, it’s like asking if there’s a difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper—and would you honestly feed either to your kids? He says “everything about Helvetica is repellent.” He calls the typestyle a “wretched mass” that signals that the “bland new world feared by Huxley, Orwell and other writers of the last century is one step nearer.”

This is strong commentary, even without the political innuendo.

Armin Vit, another detractor, wrote an article entitled, “Why I Hate Helvetica,” wherein he likens the letter style to obsolete 1960’s technology, like rotary-dial telephones. He marvels that, “like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what,” and then concludes, “no business, service or product deserves Helvetica in the 21st century any more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.” Having sat in a dentist’s chair in the 1960s, I feel his pain.

My initial reaction to all the Helvetica deprecation is that surely it’s tongue-in-cheek. However, these people are serious. Some are respected voices in the field of typography. And since among the many thousands of letter styles there are plenty that are worse, why does Helvetica provoke such intense ire?

Why is Helvetica Disliked?

Something that you hear over and over about Helvetica is that it is overused or misused.

And it’s hard to argue with these indictments.

But rarely are there specific comments about the actual design of Helvetica letters. Most criticisms are subjective and rather general.

For example, one person said that the capital R is “criminal,” but the crime is not explained. Do they not like the curved leg? It’s unique, that’s for sure, though I’m not sure that makes it a crime. Helvetica has been described as bland and antiseptically clean. But what if a clean look is what you are trying to achieve? Detractors also seem to agree that it is not highly legible, especially in body text. But compared to what? Helvetica is certainly more legible than the extreme thick-and-thins of Tiffany with its funky serifs. I will agree that a book page filled with small Helvetica is definitely an eyestrain to read. But the Lufthansa logo seems easy to read on the side of an airplane. So whether it is or isn’t legible depends to a great extent on context.

It is difficult for me to see past the fact that much of Helvetica dissing is based on personal opinion rather than on valid design aesthetics. Certainly the letter style is overused, and by no small margin. It has been used inappropriately, as many letter styles are. There is no letter style that fits every situation, no matter how neutral it is. New York designer Paul Lombardi said, “there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect typeface.’ There are, however, perfect typefaces for the task (and often more than one)… It’s design that should be criticized, not the typeface.”

Font choice faults lie with the individual designer or designers, or a (gasp) micromanaging client.

The same principle applies to many things. That is, the principle that context is what determines appropriateness. It is true of color selection, for example. I knew a sign painter once who didn’t like green. With a smile, he would say it was ugly, and he never used it unless requested. But he admitted this was just a personal quirk. Because there really are no ugly colors, only inappropriate ones. This is true of letter styles as well.

One blog poster at Smashing Magazine commented insightfully: “No font, no design technique, no design style should be off-limits or out-of-bounds, and there is an appropriate usage for everything. . . [Helvetica] is just one of many tools. The trick is, knowing when to use it.”

Yes, Helvetica is simply one of many tools in a very bloated tool bag. Each is appropriate for a particular application. Is it lazy or a cop-out to use one letter style as a go-to font? Perhaps. But could jumping on the Helvetica hate wagon also be a cop-out?

In his blog, I Love Typography, John Beardly speculates that “perhaps a lot of the present day ill will towards Helvetica stems from the bandwagon or me-too mentality—it’s kind of cool to be ‘in on the joke,’ and like the conspiracy loons who revel in their knowledge of clandestine secrets, they take smug solace in their shared vituperative consternation.”

Is he saying that Helvetica’s detractors are just font snobs? But even font snobs have their place, don’t they? Like wine snobs, and these days, craft beer snobs, they serve a purpose. I don’t know that much about good wine/food pairings. I appreciate suggestions from wine experts. And the wonderful vocabularies the wine and beer people have developed can really help you dissect a flavor or an aroma. They help me understand what I like, and why I like it.

In the end, though, I will make my own choice. I am, after all, the designer (or beer taster). I may not be the best, but I will do my best. I make it a point to try to design what is appropriate for the job and the client. I work to avoid using a font or design technique just because it’s one of my personal favorites. Or because it’s used by the cool kids. And I don’t avoid a font just because it’s uncool.

So, do I believe that design is unimportant? No, of course not. As designers, we should be the best we can be. And branding programs are serious business. But a typestyle decision is just part of the whole mix, and it may not have the dire consequences that some believe. I wonder if the real fear some of us have who design for a living is that our role could become trivialized.

Because at the end of the design workday, if my font choices have been less than perfect, the world will not end.

All upper case slows reading time


“Reading in word units is the most important characteristic of the mature reader,” says David Jury in his book, About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography.

A beginning reader reads in a linear way, word by word. A mature reader reads in word groups in a series of quick back and forth movements across a line of text. Between these jumps, called saccades, our eyes stop for a fraction of a second. These stops, or fixations, may occur many times a second. The more proficient a reader is, the longer are the jumps and the fewer the stops.

In eye-movement tests, upper case letters require far more fixation points than do lower case letters, adding to the time required to read.  Experiments by Tinker and Patterson in 1928 found that reading all caps was 11.8% slower than reading lower case. A later study, which measured longer reading periods, found all upper case to be 19% slower for reading periods of five and ten minutes, and 13.9% slower for reading periods of twenty minutes. Presumably, as the reading period lengthened, the readers grew more accustomed to reading all caps, which may suggest one reason that reading upper and lower case mixed is easier and quicker to read—we are used to it.
On the other hand, some studies indicate that the distinctive word shapes produced by the ascenders and descenders in lower case lettering also play a part in quick word recognition.

Upper and mixed case contrast02

It’s interesting that if we cover the top half of a line of lower case lettering, it is almost impossible to read. But if we cover the bottom half, it is still possible to read the text, suggesting that the upper parts of the letters and the ascenders are especially important in word recognition.

Half covered letters02


Regardless of the reason for it, reading text in all caps can increase the time necessary to read a message, whether it’s on a book page or on a sign.

Upper case takes up 40-50% more area. This reduces the number of words perceived within each eye fixation, which may explain the increased number of fixations required for all caps.  Line spacing needs to be increased slightly with all upper case for it to be legible. The result is that signs in all upper case tend to look more filled, busier, more crowded, than the same amount of copy in mixed case.

In sign work, it is important for a viewer to read messages easily and quickly. Anything we as designers can do to speed up and facilitate the process is going to be of benefit.


Punch cutting. These videos show how it was done.

The making of metal type by hand for printing was very involved and labor intensive. Most people understand that metal type was cast: Molten metal was poured into molds.The bottom of a mold, the matrix, held the impression of a letter, in reverse, perfectly formed. How were these molds and impressions made? They were made by punches, produced by amazingly talented and patient craftsmen called punch cutters. Punch cutters, with tiny gouges and files, sculpted raised letters in real size, in reverse, on the ends of square metal rods. Not surprisingly, the first punch cutters came from the ranks of goldsmiths.

The true artisans of the early hot metal printing industry were not the printers, but the punch cutters.

Making letter punches by hand was made virtually obsolete in the late 1800s by the invention of the Linotype and the Monotype machines. Later, photographic processes supplanted the making of hot metal type. Then computers arrived and changed everything again.Today, a “font” is no longer a collection of metal type kept in cases or drawers, but a piece of digital software loaded onto a computer hard drive.

This fascinating series of videos shows how punch cutting was done:

One of the better books on this subject, written by a modern day punchcutter:

Counterpunch: Making Type in the Sixteenth Century; Designing Typefaces Now, by Fred Smeijers (London: Hyphen Press, 1996)

Sign painters didn’t use fonts

sign painter on scaffolding

Historically, sign painters, also known as sign writers, lived in a completely different world from printers. They worked in small shops, frequently alone. Some were uneducated itinerants. They were the most blue collar of the “creatives,” with a unique trade vocabulary. They drew and painted letters by hand, ignoring typography for the most part. Skilled at brush manipulation, they used letter styles they called “alphabets,” developed for speed and legibility, except in the occasional instance where they were required to duplicate a printer’s typestyle on a sign. Sign painters never called themselves typesetters or printers. Few even called themselves artists. Tradesman, or craftsman, were terms that seemed more appropriate. Yet most were quite talented, many achieving high levels of artistic ability and speed.

Sign painters were never asked to use a font because such a request would not have made sense. In fact, “font” was not a word they used because it had little to do with hand lettering. The word font was not found in instructional materials on hand lettering, and it was never used as a synonym for “letter style.” Sign makers who were familiar with printer’s terms may have known what a font was. It was a collection of type—pieces of metal. These were kept in drawers, cabinets and cases in print shops. Loaded onto a press by typesetters, the metal type from a font collection was used to print letters on paper in a particular typestyle.

How fonts were made


In earlier times, the design of a typeface started with a highly skilled metalsmith called a punch cutter (the first punch cutters were actually goldsmiths). The punch cutter’s job was to produce a complete set of letter punches in a particular style and size. A letter punch was a rectangular metal rod with a small raised letter carved in reverse on the end of the rod. The punch was carefully struck with a hammer to make an impression of the letter on a slab of softer metal that became the bottom, or matrix, of a small mold. In the type foundry, these molds were filled with molten metal to produce pieces of type, enough to create a complete font, or set, of type. This process of producing type fits with what is thought to be the origin of the word font. It derives from an early French verb meaning to found or caste in metal. Early printers did their own typecasting after purchasing a set of punches from a punch cutter. Producing a complete font of metal type was a laborious process from start to finish and punch cutters were highly skilled. Producing a set of punches to make a single font (one size, in one typestyle) could take many months of careful, tedious work using tiny files and gouges. Each additional font size would have required the cutting of another complete set of punches. Understandably, acquiring a set of punches represented a significant financial investment on the part of a printer.

Setting type was time-consuming, too, though many typesetters became amazingly fast. The process of casting and setting type became automated with the introduction of typecasting machines, such as the Monotype and Linotype. As metal type gave way to other forms of typesetting and printing, a font eventually became the name for a piece of digital software to be loaded onto a computer. Technically, font is not a synonym for typestyle. A font is what is used to produce a typestyle in print. In other words, a font is not the letter style, but the underlying software code.

Modern day punch cutter at the French type foundry, Typofonderie

In contrast to the sign industry, the print world evolved into an industry employing many specialty occupations: typesetters, artists, pressmen, proof readers and editors, all of whom served to increase the level of professionalism in the industry and the quality of the end product.

Today, the distinction between the worlds of printing and sign making is beginning to blur. As a result of inexpensive technology and equipment, a crude form of typesetting is being practiced in today’s sign shops, often by inexperienced and untrained workers, resulting in an enormous amount of sign work that is being produced cheaply, but that is often unattractive and ineffective as advertising. Poor design work lacking in eye appeal is common as standards have declined. Designers are often hired, not so much because they have good design skills, but because they know the software and can type rapidly. Artwork has been replaced by copy/pasted clipart, sometimes pirated.

In the novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote of a time of upheaval and great change. He repeated a theme of dark against light, good against bad. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

For the sign industry, this is the best and worst of times. Some of the most amazing design work is being produced today with the assistance of powerful design software. Alongside this work is a growing flood of mediocre and poor design, also produced with the help of computers, that threatens to be overwhelming.

Is it possible to reverse this trend?


Why computer fonts can be a problem

Historically, sign painters leaned heavily on letter styles that were relatively bold. They didn’t use fonts, the name for collections of type. They didn’t even use the word “font.” “Font” was a printer’s term, not part of the sign painter’s vocabulary. Letter styles used by letterers were called alphabets. When a thick-and-thin letter style, commonly called a roman, was used on sign work, it was usually a version that was visually substantial. That is, thin strokes were thicker and serifs were not too delicate. Similarly, when lettering with script, thin strokes were not made too skinny.

Computer fonts, by contrast, can create legibility problems on signs, due to the fact that light faced letter styles predominate in sign software. Even the bold versions of many roman fonts have thin strokes that are not practical for general sign work.

Consider Times Roman, designed specifically for the London Times newspaper. It is very legible—in print. On a sign, however, more often than not, it looks weak and hinders readability. It has thin strokes that are simply too thin for distance viewing at larger sizes. Even in the bold version, the thin strokes are not substantial enough to be practical for general sign work. A sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinct anemic look. There is too much space; it is too “white.” Times Roman, and it’s sibling Times New Roman, was made for newspaper reading. It was not designed to be used in large sizes and at the distances required for sign viewing. The main problem is that the thin strokes are so thin that they tend to disappear from view as the reading distance increases, leaving only the bold strokes visible.

The fact that so many computer fonts are designed for print, not for signs, is responsible, at least in part, for the flood of poor and ineffective sign work being created today. The majority of letter styles produced with computer software are simply unsuitable for sign work.

In the days of painted signs, a sign painter could ensure that roman letters were readable by thickening the thin strokes as needed on the fly. Widening a letter stroke was as simple as applying extra pressure to a lettering brush, mashing out the hairs so that a wider line was painted. Using a larger lettering brush was also an option. Sign painters were not tied to fonts that couldn’t be modified. Modifications were easy. Type styles were usually not reproduced exactly, but that wasn’t the goal. Rather, an alphabet was adjusted as needed for legibility and readability.

It is evident that part of the solution to making signs more effective today is to make more use of heavy and medium stroked letter styles, and using light faced letters sparingly. Times Roman is really not an excellent choice for sign work, even in its so-called bold version. It’s sometimes possible to artificially improve the legibility of Times Roman by “stroking” it, that is, adding a contour or outline to the letter, in the same color as the letter, to thicken the strokes. This distorts the outline of the letter, of course, but at least the thin strokes don’t disappear as readily. It’s best to do this stroking procedure on the light or medium versions of the letter rather than the bolder versions.

Sometimes a dark background can save a letter with skinny strokes. Strokes tend to appear a little heavier when light letters are put on a dark background. Landscape painters say that light colors “advance,” or grow in perceived size, while dark colors “recede,” or shrink. Especially is this true on internally-illuminated signs. The legibility of a thin-stroked letter is almost always improved by a lighted sign that has a dark background.

My preference is to simply avoid using Times Roman on most sign work, choosing instead a naturally bolder letter. I especially like fonts that have been created by sign painters. Knowing the limitations and weaknesses of letter styles designed for print, these font designers have produced letter styles that work well in large sizes and at greater distances.

So, choose fonts for signage carefully. Make choices that circumvent the problems created by letter styles that were designed for print thus avoiding the anemic look that is so common in computer-generated sign design today.

What makes type legible?

Some sign people see type as nothing more than letterforms. But this view is what produces poor typography. Effective design requires that we see more than the shapes of the letters.

Good typography results from understanding the importance of the spaces as well—between the letters and surrounding the letters. Also, between words, lines and blocks of copy. It is this negative space that makes type either more legible or less legible.

To a novice sign designer, typography is about choosing a letter style and nothing more. Choosing something “interesting” or something fashionable. But good typography, and hence good design, is more about clarity rather than cute or complex. It is more about simplicity rather than what is interesting. It has been said that good typography tends to be invisible. That lettering should usually be “transparent,” allowing the message to come through.

Alex White said, in The Elements of Graphic Design, that “If the reader becomes aware of the letterforms, the type face was a bad choice because it detracts from the smooth transmission of the message within.”

Upper and lower case is easier to read than all capitals

Lettering in all capitals is, generally speaking, more difficult to decipher than lower case or mixed case.

A word in all capital letters creates the illusion of a straight line at the top and bottom. The word shape created by all caps is basically a rectangle.

However, a word in lower case creates a unique word shape. The shape actually aids in word recognition. In addition, the ascenders and descenders of lower case add visual interest.shapely05