Summer 2001

Why Helvetica?

Despite the changes provoked by the digital ‘revolution’, designing a typeface for serious reading remains a time-consuming task. For the designer, choosing and setting a body text font can be equally daunting, resulting in some inspired, eccentric and provocative choices

What binds the work of designers such as Evert Bloemsma, Martin Wenzel and Jeremy Tankard is a particular quality: the fluency of handwriting combined with a sense of rhythm required to provide an ongoing, left-to-right momentum for the reader. This is easier to achieve with a serif face, yet the dominance of sans serif as a symbol of everything Modern means that these dynamic characteristics are now sought in sans serif typefaces – traditionally a static letter-form. The typical sans serif is upright, with each character designed to be ‘self-sufficient’ – not interacting or looking for support from other characters. This means that sans serifs offer little forward momentum, a good reason for their limited use for extended texts. So why would anyone use Helvetica for the body text of a book?

Helvetica, designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger, is a bold and unambiguous statement based entirely on rationality. The characters are closed, simplified in construction, and fit at 90 or 0 degrees. Logic presides throughout, providing an overall effect of monotony. Its cool efficiency of form (often the reason given by designers for choosing it) is at the expense of readability. But that was never as important as the bigger idea. Miedinger set out to design a neutral typeface and he achieved this admirably. Was it for this reason that Helvetica was chosen as the default typeface on most computers, making it (probably) the most used typeface in the world? Technology has cruelly distorted the old Shaker adage: ‘That which in itself has the highest use, possesses the greatest beauty.’

During the past 25 years, there have been several efforts to design a sans with a more humanistic aspect: Roger Excoffon’s Antique Olive (1966), Hans Eduard Meier’s Syntax (1968) and Fred Smeijers’ Quadraat (1989), also available in a serif version, are obvious examples. These use the handwritten qualities of the pen, partly in the modulation in the thickness of line (contrast) but also in the way the beginnings and endings of strokes lead the reader’s eye away from the character and on to the next one …

Traditional modulation produces vertical lines thicker than horizontals. With Bloemsma’s typeface, Balance, (1993) the opposite contrast is applied. The horizontals are five to ten per cent thicker than the verticals, and additional weight is also added at the top and bottom of verticals and curves to provide additional horizontal stress in the way a serif is designed to do. The total absence of straight lines gives Balance a light, calligraphic feel.

Martin Wenzel’s Profile (1999) is more ‘classic’ in many respects, although, like Balance, the emphasis, is again (but more subtly) on the horizontals. Also, there is a thickening, this time rather more suggestive of a serif, at the top of each upright. While Wenzel argues that Profile is not a revivalist font, it does have characteristics that suggest a distant relationship to Old Style fonts such as Garamond.

While serifs help provide additional raw material upon which a concept can be visually developed, a sans serif, being simpler in structure, is perhaps more robust and able to withstand a greater degree of adaptation. This was the reasoning of Jeremy Tankard, when he began designing Shaker (2000), a sans serif, as a compliment to his earlier serif type Enigma. He aimed to develop a strong, vigorous typeface capable of retaining its elegance in the broadest possible range of conditions. Tankard is an admirer of le goût Hollandois tradition: workman-like types, epitomised by the Demos and Praxis families of Gerard Unger (see Reputations).

While the x-height is of generous proportions in Balance, Profile and Shaker (and particularly large with Balance) all three have ascenders taller than the cap height. This emphasises the distinctness of lowercase letterforms and word shapes and thus increases legibility.

Designing with type
The precise details of typesetting – the preferred numbers of words / characters per line; ratio of interline spacing to x-height; space around punctuation marks; where to break words; and so on – are suddenly being exposed in the worst possible way: by not being attended to. Previous generations of graphic designers had these details decided for them by compositors (who knew these details as part of their trade). If the truth be known, much of the work of the compositor went unrecognised and without comment. Such subtleties of detail were rarely part of the graphic designer’s education, and when there were skilled compositors on hand to set type, why should they be? Besides, there was always a clear division between what was perceived as ‘design’ work and ‘printing / typesetting’ work. Since this ‘partnership’ was fraught with ideological differences, the result was that the two areas were quite happy to stay apart.

Today, it is a dangerous delusion to pretend that the vast majority of designers, are, or perhaps ever were, in possession of this knowledge. It is a time-consuming activity (particularly if there is no house style that can be referred to) and, in many ways, regrettably alien to the educational and general working methodologies experienced by the designer. Designers are trained to think visually. The immediate appearance; shape, colour and texture of the text is generally of more importance to the designer than its ability to convey its message to the reader. This attitude regularly leads to designs using arbitrary line-lengths, often over-long and in closely set Modern sans serif type.

The same applies to the choice of font: typefaces often seem to be chosen for their appearance rather than their function. Much depends on the expectations of the reader. Perhaps it should not be surprising that Helvetica (not a text face) is used so much in the design of material relating to cultural events. This material is often viewed as design for designers and an opportunity to have fun. The type and layout starts communicating before a single word has been read. What a catalogue with tightly spaced 7/7pt Helvetica Light is actually saying is: ‘This is serious stuff and if you intend to read it you had better be prepared to give 100 per cent!’ (This often appears to be more of a threat than an invitation.)

A readers’ market
Yet most books (not the coffee table variety) are meant to be read, and often in circumstances far from ideal. They require a modest approach: to achieve legibility in an environment of high commercial pressure and ever tighter schedules, text needs to be ‘low risk’ and handled with great efficiency. It is an oft-repeated platitude that the reader should not ‘see’ the typography but, as Nicky Barneby, Head of Typography for the general division at Penguin Books, explains, ‘the text is looked at and its “readability” assessed before purchase.’

At Penguin, the textual appearance is considered as crucial to the sale of the book as the design of the cover. Despite the increasing number of new text typefaces available, Penguin have stuck to a fairly limited number of classics, or typefaces based on classic serif designs: Dante, Bembo, Sabon, Plantin, Baskerville and Minion. Barneby explains, ‘These typefaces, for printing on to wood-free text paper stock, are quite open and light, and so do not give too dense a colour to the text on these more absorbent papers.’

She feels, in common with most commercial publishers, that sans serif faces are not generally robust enough to work with the softer stock commonly used for paperbacks. Sans fonts are reserved for larger format books, when smoother finished art papers are available. Such books – cookery, travel etc. – are also used in an entirely different way, the reader dipping in and scanning for specific information. In such circumstances the preferred faces are Monotype Grotesque, Helvetica Neue, Univers, Trade Gothic, Frutiger and Akzidenz Grotesk. Where there is a choice of versions, Barneby uses Monotype. Newer, ‘quirky’ sans serifs such as Quadraat or Profile have not yet found favour with the company.

Penguin still follows the famous Composition Rules, written by Jan Tschichold during his period in England as head of typography from 1946-49. The most recent edition was issued in 1998 by Barneby’s text design department. Prior to this the Rules had been issued by the production department for use by typesetters, editors and designers. Barneby’s edition takes account of modern typesetting systems and contains technical instructions to ‘… aid those with less knowledge of traditional typesetting language.’

In such a specialist publishing environment, where there is a common interest and belief in the integrity of the printed word, time to attend to typographic detail, revisions and proofing are recognised and built into a system of work. Design consultancies, however, by the nature of the work, behave differently. Creativity is often paramount and a maverick attitude to problem-solving is entirely appropriate. In circumstances where the big idea takes precedence over small details, digital typography can make designers lazy. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: ‘Any well developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ And ‘magic’ is too often the way designers think typography happens.

Rethinking craft
‘Craft’ is typically associated with the hand – working with physical materials such as wood, metal and ink. Moving characters around on screen may not have the cachet of traditional methods, yet typographic manipulation can now be applied with a degree of craftsmanship and flexibility than was never possible with letterpress or photo-composition. But a modern society believes things can only get better – which means more cost-effective. The time gained by the speed of new technology is rarely used in the service of good typography, which is seen by many to be time-consuming and ‘inefficient’. Typography is consequently the most vulnerable part of the graphic designer’s craft. Some designers complain that managers have ‘banned kerning’ in the studio, that a designer who wants to work on typographic detail must do it in their own time. Meanwhile, for designers and managers who don’t know the difference, the minutiae of textual typography is seen as an unnecessary exercise in restrictive conservatism: ‘Why not leave it to the machine … that’s what it was designed to do!’

The digital revolution happened swiftly and its timing coincided with huge financial cuts in further and higher education in the UK. Digital technology has given the graphic designer ‘independence’ from typesetters – from the printing industry, even. Yet with this freedom comes additional responsibilities requiring additional knowledge and skills: something that higher education is finding difficult to respond to. Total, independent control of typography has been dropped into the lap of every graphic designer, yet the same technology sits on desks in every commercial business and organisation. The question will be asked more and more: ‘Should I employ a graphic designer or ‘design’ it myself?’ Put another way: if the finer points of typography are not addressed, then what will be the difference between a graphic designer and a administrative assistant, paid perhaps ten times less for doing the same job just as badly?

Thanks to Jan van Son and Jeremy Tankard.

David Jury editor, Typographic, the journal of ISTD. Head of graphic design at Colchester Institute

First published in Eye no. 40 vol. 10 2001

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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