Sunday, 27 February 2011

Helvetica's last words

Ladies and gentleman, today I have to tell you something very sad. For, it seems to me, a good friend has passed away. That friend is Helvetica, my all-time favourite font and the most used (commercially) typeface of all time, ever. Made in the 50s by the Haas type foundry, and used in branding from M&S to T-Mobile and dozens of others, Helvetica is an important part of our everyday life, though most people don't know it. It's always there to tell you to buy more M&S food or that there's a new offer from T-Mobile. It warns you to keep out or beware of electricity pylons. It directs you on streetsigns. It's everywhere, it's trustworthy, it's stable and it's reliable. It's Helvetica.

But it's time that we moved on, typographically speaking. I'm talking of a sans-serif revolution, forefronted by the greatest type designers currently working, Hoefler and Frere-Jones. These two released one of their best fonts, by name of Gotham, a few years ago and I believe this is forefronting a typographical revolution. I'll still use Helvetica, as will everyone else - for now anyway - but I want to make you aware of this imminent and large-scale change that I think is happening. Well, it is happening, but I think it will grow to be bigger than it is.

So here's a little clipping of Gotham, credits to H&FJ. I'd buy it, but sadly it's way too expensive for any typography fan and exclusive to the budgets of magazines and design agencies.


Gotham, inspired by the 'American vernacular', is sharp, strong and modern yet with a clear US-40s vibe to it that will allow it to sit in a less modern setting. It's not universal like Helvetica is, not bland like Univers is, not too abstract like Avant-Garde or Future, and more stylish than Gill Sans. I like to think of it as the Eames of sans-serifs. And it's had a large impact. I can't tell you that it's being used in more and more places now, because I don't know how to define it from other similar fonts, but that type of sans-serif is becoming more and more common.

Let's take a look at the logo of one of the leading menswear designers, Tom Ford. Yeah, the guy who presented an award at the BAFTAs and held a womenswear show but only invited one photographer and no bloggers. That guy. Well, here's his current logo. Now look at his older logo:

Notice any difference? Yeah, the font is different. The older logo has our best friend Helvetica - noticeable by the classic R-form (more on that later), and the current logo is what I hereby christen as a 'modern sans serif'. Maybe even Gotham, though I believe the M-form is different. 'Modern sans serif?' you ask, 'aren't all sans-serifs modern?'. Ah, my dear fellow, that is where you are wrong. This is what I'm trying to say with this post: sans-serifs have been around for nearly a century now, so we can't perceive all of them as being 'modern'. At some point we need to separate the sans-serifs of the past with a new wave of sans-serifs that are in use by the most fashionable designers and brands (ie. Tom Ford, also Michael Kors and various other fashion brands), and I call them 'modern' sans-serifs.

These fonts are most recognisable by that simple yet bold R-form, a letterform which I find myself more and more attracted to every time I see it in use. It's so modern, that's all I can call it. Modern, bold, and strong. Strong is a big thing to identify about it and the rest of 'modern' sans-serif typefaces, that's what they're beginning to hold over classical sans-serifs, and why I have to say that Helvetica is looking increasingly weak and old-fashioned. Look, let me explain with a brief history of the R-form...


So here is the R-form (bear in mind I'm talking constantly about the capital/majuscule R-form) in various Helvetica weights - bold, regular, light and ultra-light. It's not a badly designed font - of course not, it's one of the greatest ever made - but it does have it flaws, that I have only discovered after using it so much. And one of those flaws is the signiature R-form. Alright in the bold weight, a maybe even in regular, but when we get to ultra-light that letterform is looking weak and not at all elegant. In an italicised weight, it looks even worse as the leg of the R sticks out, still vertical as in the regular weights but now looking diagonal to the back stem. It can't be helped with that sort of leg on the R, but it still doesn't look very good. It's no wonder M&S occasionally use a similar ultralight sans-serif for their branding, one with a modern R-form, and swap between the two. Risky, but necessary if you want your branding free of that increasingly dated R-form.


Here we can see Helvetica at the end of the evolution of type: starting with Hoefler Text (made by Jonathan Hoefler from H&FJ), standing for a classical serif font, then with Didot for that art deco Didone period in the 20s and 30s, then to Clarendon for the league of slab serifs in the late 20th century. Sure, Helvetica is a bit out of place in a serif font line-up, but it shows its roots. Classical serif fonts have that straight R leg that we recognise in Gotham, kinda, but since then they moved onto a more intricate, curled form, evident in both Didones and slab-serifs. That form then moved straight into the sans-serif movement in the 40s and 50s, because both Univers and Helvetica have a reduced form of the curled leg, and that's only one of many old-fashioned stylings that can be found in Helvetica. It may look modern in most circumstances, but in actual fact it shows its age quite a lot!

Now let's look at Helvetica, specifically its R-form, as part of the sans-serif evolution. Sans-serifs as we know them today are divided into three main types: humanist, geometric and grotesque. The humanist font shown here is the British classic Gill Sans - used for BBC News graphics and designed by Eric Gill. I once when to a Gill Sans-themed Pizza Express, but that's another matter. Gill Sans' R-form has a very wide leg, one of its most recognisable features, so this is more related to that swash leg we see in Hoefler Text in the previous graphic. Our geometric sans-serifs are Futura and Avant-Garde, and in these fonts the designers have explored using straight legs to balance the rounded form of the small bowl (loop) at the top of the R. This form can start to look a bit like the handwritten R-form, as if the letter was drawn with one single stroke, but even this can be manipulated, as in the distinctive unattached leg in Avant-Garde.

However, compared to these other forms of sans-serif, grotesques like Helvetica and its counterpart Univers are staring to look aged and unbalanced. Their forms are too classic and show too many signs of traditional letterforms and the remains of serifs (such as on the tail of the lowercase A in Helvetica regular), even though Helvetica is a massive improvement on the older Univers, which keeps almost exclusively to classical proportions (ie. width of R is half width of O). I have also included the only example of a 'modern' sans-serif I own; some display font called 'Hit the Road Regular' which is the closest I can come to Gotham without spending a load of money on H&FJ's typeface. You can see it's smaller - that's only unique to Hit the Road, it's got a load of problems with it (especially kerning), but even without it is very bold and intense when compared to the etherial Avant-Garde or towering Helvetica R-forms.

I'm not saying that Helvetica's typographic reign is over. It certainly isn't. I want to make you aware that Helvetica won't last forever, and that - as with everything - it has its flaws. So it's about time we thought about where we're going to move on to, typographically. And I say we move onto 'modern' sans-serifs, that's what I find myself being dragged to. Rest assured, Helvetica will last another 10 years at least, but today we see Univers slipping by the sidelines (HSBC's branding is the only important current use I can remember) and Helvetica is walking the same road as Univers; they're in the same boat. So sure, let's enjoy Helvetica for now, but let's keep our typographic senses trained on the future. Mid-century modernism won't last forever.

~John

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