Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Have you noticed that at the top of this blog I list Graphic Design as one of the topics this blog is about? And have you been waiting for a couple of years to read any mention here of graphic design? Wait no more. Tonight I have graphic design on my mind.

We saw a fascinating movie the other night. It is a documentary about the typeface called Helvetica, which is the title of the movie. I am a self-professed "type nerd" so it was right up my alley, but I think most creative people will find it interesting. I especially loved the interviews with the German typographer Erik Spiekermann. You can see a clip here. (He's not much of a fan of Helvetica)

If you are not familiar with the typeface this is it:

It was designed in Switzerland 50 years ago and has become the most commonly used typeface in the world. You probably see it in advertising, signage and print hundreds of times a day. The movie talks about why it has become so ubiquitous.

When our small group was at the beach a discussion of movies led to discussion of Helvetica, the movie. I shocked Gerrie when I said that I don't much care for Helvetica, the typeface. (Loved the movie; the typeface—not so much) The thing that has made it so useful for such things as signage, is its transparency. It is a type that you don't notice. It has no character. It is like air. I do appreciate those useful properties, but it seems to me so overused that to use it is almost a concession to having no real opinion or point of view.

So, what do I like? For sans serif type, which is what Helvetica is (serifs are those little feet you see at the bottom of letters, like the type I am using here. Sans serif type has no little feet) I am quite fond of Gill Sans, which some may also argue is overused. This is Gill Sans:
Unlike Helvetica, Gill Sans is what is called a "humanist" face because the form of the letters follows the modulations that are natural to handwritten text, written with a broad-nib pen. You can see this most clearly in the thick and thin curves of the n, r and a. To my eye Gill Sans is a warmer, friendlier face than the machine-like Helvetica.

Another sans serif (but just barely—if you look hard you will see slight hints of serifs here and there), not nearly so useful, but fun to use for invitations and some special applications is Goudy Sans, designed in the 1920s. Quirky, but quite elegant. I tend to overuse it. I am quite in love with this typeface.
If you have not yet nodded off and banged your head against your keyboard and might have some interest in type, the best book, by far, (in my opinion) is The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It is a book I have read several times and is as engaging to me as any good novel. It has history, romance, intrigue and even humor.

So, what, you may ask, does Bringhurst have to say about Helvetica? Not much. It isn't even listed among his type examples toward the back of the book.


  1. I used to find Helvetica pretty dull too. Like you, I much prefer Gill. I've found though -- at least on-screen, that gill has some legibility problems. I hate to say it, but when I use smaller sizes (9 point-ish) I steer clear of Gill. My fave since it's overuse in the 90s (my formative design years) is Univers -- preferably slightly condensed!

  2. Oh, and if I were on a desert island and could only bring one typeface, it would hands down be Garamond. Being a serif though, it's not really part of the to Helvetica or not to Helvetica conversation.

  3. Anonymous7:31 AM

    I am a Arial fan myself. This cracks me up a blog about fonts. I love it!!!!
    Keep up the good work and diversity!

  4. Hello, My name is Deoborah and I am a font addict. My font of choice is CENTURY GOTHIC...I'm old, I can read it easily!

  5. Gill Sans is a soothing typeface.
    You used it in your blog banner, I think.
    I stick to serif faces for my pattern instructions because they are easier for older people to read. (I was taught that way back when.)

  6. Kristin, I am right there with you with Garamond as my favorite serif typeface. The combo of Garamond and Gill Sans was always a good go-to combo for print publications. I also agree that GS doesn't work as well online. The lowercase is a bit too small and tight for screen resolution. Univers is OK, but not very exciting IMO.

    Rooth, sorry, but Arial is just a bad copy of Helvetica.

    Deb, I am quite fond of Century Gothic. It is so nice and open and round--very accessible. I especially like light versions for titles.

  7. Christine, I didn't use Gill Sans in my banner. The uppercase sans serif used across the bottom of the banner is actually Arial Rounded. I know, I just said dismissive things about Arial, but the rounded version, uppercase worked. What can I say? Recent studies show that the old belief about serif faces being more readable is not necessarily true, but, like you, I usually use a serif face (Garamond!) for extended text in print pieces. The exceptions are the engineering manuals I do. Those engineers love their Helvetica!

  8. Found this most interesting. I don't have a graphics arts background, but worked on a magazine many years ago. I love different type styles, and I'm paying even more attention to them now, as I have begun to add phrases and lettering to my quilts. For those, I prefer a serif type, just to make it a big more interesting.

  9. So interesting. I'm a big fan of type, though maybe not as obsessed --- er, I mean, educated -- as you. This has generated lots of comments. We all love the way lines and spaces work together whether in type or in art composition. I am willing to bet that there are entire blogs dedicated to fonts.

    One font that I've noticed ALOT lately is the font that was used for the title in the now-defunct Martha Stewart publication, Blueprint. It's all over the Kohl's department store advertisements and I've seen it various other places. Very trendy.

  10. I used to be a typographer. And the client wanted to use ITC Korinna for the headlines. Love the way the uppercase C looks in that font. It is, of course, a serif. I am not a big fan of small point-sized san serif print. My old eyes just can't read it, some of the lower case letters just seem to plug up. 'nuff said. I enjoy your blog.

  11. Anonymous11:48 AM

    Not long ago I re-did the parent handbook for the place where I teach. The previous handbook had been done in Comic Sans (in fact, EVERY form, letter, report was Comic Sans--urgh!). I convinced them that Comic Sans was truly an overdone typeface (and not JUST by us) so they let me use Berlin--it's readable and has an element of fun that I like.
    [I thought only you and I could get into conversations about typeface, Terry, and here are all these other people with typeface opinions. Cool!]

  12. My vote for most elegant: Della Robbia...haven't used it in years so I hope I've spelled it correctly!

  13. Terry --
    Well, I guessed wrong, but it was hard to tell because the type was small (and all caps) in your banner. It looks nice.
    You said, "Recent studies show that the old belief about serif faces being more readable is not necessarily true..."
    Perhaps this is because the study subjects are younger people nowadays. When I learned the truism it was explained to me that our first reading books are almost always set in serif type and our early learning sticks.
    However, today many children's early books use san-serif type. That could have changed the concept.
    Most print newspapers and almost all novels are set in serif type for "ease of reading."
    I'm open to change.

  14. Wow! I'm delighted to see so much about typefaces. As a copy editor, I'm inundated with Times and Times New Roman, which, to me, are too squished together. I admit a fondness for Palatino.

  15. Nice blog about typefaces. I love typefaces too. I took a class in book arts and we handset type on a letterpress. Yum.

    On the web, I like the ease of reading of Verdana. That's my blog's main text font.

    I love Garamond too. In particular, I like Adobe Garamond which I think is superior to ITF Garamond.

  16. Really enjoyed Helvetica, the movie, not the typeface, so much! I liked the segment where the guy (can't remember what his name was) was talking about how he identified some store on his block by it's signage with the poor word spacing....not the way civilians see it.
    Thanks for your always interesting blog!

  17. Anonymous8:17 AM

    Sorry Terry. My forehead hit the keyboard about mid-way through. Maybe in another life I will understand all of this :-) I will see you when the snow stops falling. I need to clear my head of typeface cobwebs with some fresh air!

  18. I never fit the surveys - san serif anything is easier for me to read than all those little hooks that run the words together. Although the new glasses help. I have two reservations in October for the Helvetica movie. I'll send you my review then. Del

  19. I'm a self-professed type junkie. Last time I counted I had over 600 fonts on my computer. Yummmm....

  20. i enjoyed this post quite a lot! will put the book on my library/amazon list.

  21. such an interesting post! I have often wondered what Sans Serif and Humanist meant, thanks for the info! I'm with Deb, I use Century Gothic most of the time.

  22. The new issue of Newsweek has an article on typefaces. Interesting.
    Also, I was wrong again. The old children's books I found this last week were mostly san serif faces. I have a lot to unlearn.

  23. I have fun playing with all those fonts on my computer. Each one has a different voice.