Helvetica is one of the world’s most recognizable typefaces. Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, Helvetica was created in 1957 by designer Max Miedinger with input from Eduard Hoffman (its name was changed 4 years later when it was licensed by Linotype). Helvetica quickly rose to prominence because of its legibility and versatility. 50 years later, it’s still going strong. In 2007, Gary Hustwit released a critically-acclaimed feature-length documentary (called “Helvetica”) about its impact and influence on the world of design.
But familiarity often breeds contempt.
Erik Spiekermann said “People use Helvetica because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonalds instead of thinking about food.”
Wolfgang Weingart went a step further: “Anyone who uses Helvetica knows nothing about typefaces.”
Other well-known designers were not quite as harsh.
Steff Geissbuhler called Helvetica “still the most versatile, classic, and readable of all typefaces.”
And Hamish Muir joked that “We hate to like Helvetica.”
So…if you’re a designer, you might be looking for fonts like Helvetica that aren’t so overused. Good news! Our friends at Identifont, Fontspring, Typewolf, and MyFonts recommended several similar grotesk sans-serif typefaces that we’ve assembled here to help you broaden your design pallette:
Created by the URW++ foundry in 1995 as an alternative to Helvetica, Nimbus Sans serves as an effective Helvetica doppelgänger.
Identifont did a side-by-side comparison of the two. Have a look for yourself!
Inspired by Helvetica, Pragmatica was designed at ParaType (ParaGraph) in 1989 by Vladimir Yefimov (later styles were developed by Olga Chaeva, Alexander Tarbeev, and Manvel Shmavonyan with participation from Dmitry Kirsanov).
Again, practically identical to Helvetica and Nimbus Sans.
Designed by Jeremie Hornus, Volkart is a Latin-script typeface that was published by Indian Type Foundry in 2015.
Looking for some options that aren’t so close to the vest? Richard Turgeon wrote this great piece about Helvetica alternatives that feel “modern, classic, and universal” without being quite so similar.
Stag Sans (Commercial Type)
Open Sans (Google Fonts)
Proxima Nova (Mark Simonson)
Effra (Jonas Schudel)
Aktiv Grotesk (Bruno Maag)
LFT Etica (TypeTogether)
Franklin Gothic URW T (URW++)
News Gothic (Bitstream)
So there you have it—several typefaces that are remarkably similar to Helvetica and a few that deviate a bit but still serve the same purpose.
Want to know more about which typefaces are currently the “most loved” or “most hated” by experts in the design industry? Check out James Kidwell’s informative and entertaining Trends In Typography Survey.
October 20th, 2016 by Extensis
How many emojis do you use on a daily basis? If you’re like us, you generally rely on a small number that you feel best convey your particular attitude, style, or tone. They can be used for punctuation, or for anything that the written word doesn’t quite convey.
By now the new iPhone emoji, which come with iOS 10, are old news. Many publications have reported on the changes to emoji that came with the new iPhone operating system, from more gender equality among the professions to more options for different skin tones, and the controversial replacement of a handgun with a squirt gun (reportedly due to lobbying by the group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence). And the response has not been 100% positive.
Emoji, of course, were originally derived from emoticons. And emoticons were originally designed specifically not to be ambiguous. Rather, they were meant to clarify the tone of written language. If you know something about the history of the Internet, you may know that the computer scientist Scott Fahlman was the first documented person to use typographic symbols to express specific emotions. His original proposal was posted on the computer science general board at Carnegie Mellon back in 1982:
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: : – )
Read it sideways.
Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use : – (
Within a few months, those smile and frown emoticons had spread to the ARPANET and Usenet. Variations quickly followed. It was useful for people who were communicating primarily through text, rather than speech, to have a way to convey tone, in addition to simple information.
The first real emoji were created by Shigetaka Kurita, a developer on the team that created the mobile internet platform NTT Docomo. Kurita and his team’s 176 pixelated symbols include faces that not only expressed happiness and anger or frustration, but also worry, surprise, goofiness (winking with a tongue out), a music note, an umbrella, a penguin, phases of the moon, astrological symbols, and more.
By bringing in symbols that do more than convey the tone of a written statement, Kurita created a new role for images to play in written communication. As linguist and cognitive scientist Neil Cohn says, Kurita’s emoji filled “a very effective role for communication that’s natural,” but separate, from the role of language itself. “Because of that, they aren’t really going to be a (passing) fad.”
This may help to explain why the general reaction to iOS’s new predictive emoji is less than enthusiastic. The vast majority of people who text don’t actually use emoji to replace specific nouns and verbs, as the new iOS would have us do. Said another way, we’re not replacing words so much as adding an extra layer to our communications.
Zoe Mendelson of Slate is of the opinion that the new, bigger, shinier, simpler, predictive emojis of iOS 10 have ruined emojis altogether. The way the images have been simplified, she points out, makes them less flexible. Take the grin-grimace emoji, for example, which used to convey a “slightly-guilty-slightly-pleased-slightly-embarrassed-but-still-excited expression.” In the new operating system, it has become a much simpler smile. For Mendelson, the ambiguity of the original “made it a favorite, I suspect, because we often experience this dynamic maelstrom of feelings in real life.”
She also argues that the new predictive functionality ruins all the original fun of finding a funny image that added new meaning to one’s written communication, rather than just illustrating it. “More cultural fetish than a tool,” she writes, the emojis of iOS 9 were great because they were so random and decontextualized. “They were extremely unlikely everyday vocal candidates. Floppy disk. Fishcake. Space invader. Old-school mailboxes. Barely recognizable houseplant cactus. It was deliciously random.” For an English-speaker, because “emoji effectively did not have fixed meanings,” they invited testers to play with ambiguity, and with the element of interpretative surprise.
Like them or hate them, it seems that the new emoji are here to stay. But it seems to us that most people don’t have quite the passionate response that Mendelson and others have. According to a Twitter poll we posted this month, the response of the vast majority of folks to the new predictive emojis is… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
July 27th, 2016 by Extensis
The story of fonts and typefaces in street signage is one you could start as long ago as ancient Rome. The earliest road signs were milestones, stone columns that marked the miles throughout the Roman Empire, counting the distance to Rome. Later, in the Middle Ages, multidirectional signs at intersections evolved, to point the direction to multiple cities and towns. And if you don’t already know the story of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s rigorous transformation of the UK’s chaotic road signs from 1957-1967—generally known by type design nerds around the world as “one of the most ambitious information design projects ever undertaken in Britain”—then you almost certainly know the font they used to do it (Transport—or New Transport if you’re working in digital).
But the story we’d like to tell here begins eighty-three years ago today, in New York City. On July 27, 1943, the poet and humorist Gelett Burgess wrote a letter to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City with a complaint—in verse, of course—about the fonts used on the hand-painted street signs around the city.
Why is it he who paints the signs
On New York’s numbered streets combines
Such Threes and Sixes, Eights and Nines?
For, at a distance, when it’s late,
It’s hard to differentiate
Between a Six, Nine, Three and Eight.
They look so much alike they mix
Us up: we feel like lunatics
Who cannot tell a Nine from Six.
Burgess concludes on a pleading note:
Oh, Mr. Mayor, be kind! Be wise
Our street signs please do modernize
With numbers we can recognize!
LaGuardia didn’t get to be one of the greatest mayors in American history by ignoring this sort of thing. Not to be outdone, he wrote back with a poem of his own, thanking Burgess for his letter. It’s “a real delight/ When query comes, like yours, in phrase/ Polite,” his poem begins. He goes on to address the problem at hand. “Best not, piecemeal, change signs of tin,” he thinks.
A whole new set is what we want,
And meantime, praying on our knees
Our genial government to grant
“A post-war project!” we will cry
And when a fleet of signs appears
The City will look younger by
With his last line—“The City will look younger by/ Eleven years”—LaGuardia was referencing a book by Burgess, Look Eleven Years Younger (1937)—but if his reference was cheeky, his words were not untrue. The New York City of 1943 (which you can visit via the wonderful Kodachrome photographs of Charles Cushman, in the archives of Indiana University) seemed a much older place than the New York City that did, eventually, begin to replace its signage.
In 1964—thirteen years after Gelett Burgess died—NYC began replacing all its street signage with large, easier-to-read, vinyl signs. For about twenty years, these signs were color-coded depending on what borough they were in. Street signs in Manhattan and Staten Island were yellow with black lettering; signs in the Bronx were blue with white lettering; Queens was blue on white; and Brooklyn was black and white. The type was an all-caps, sans serif situation, with superscript for the “ST”s, “AVE”s, and “RD”s in the top right corners.
As LaGuardia implied, though, the story of changing street signs in America is largely a story of state versus Federal government. It wasn’t long before the Feds passed a regulation ruling that all street signage be green, with reflective white lettering. “The color-coded regime came to a gradual end as the signs were grandfathered out.”
Joshua Yaffa, who chronicled the history of road signage wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2007: “Until the 1920s, when the development of die-cut technology allowed for the shaping and cutting of thin metal alloy, signs were often idiosyncratic, with layouts and typefaces varying by city and region. But as the popularity and accessibility of long-distance road travel increased, so, too, did the need for coherent nationwide standards. Federally approved fonts first appeared in the 1935 edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the bible of federal road and highway standards that dictates the size, shape and placement of road signs. …In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his goal of an expanded Interstate System, and highway engineers worked quickly to fashion a rough alphabet by rounding off the square edges of the block lettering created during die-cut sign making.” The result? Highway Gothic.
In 2004, citing a study that showed it was more difficult to read signs in all caps, the Federal government issued an order for a new font to be used on highway signs, and for all uppercase traffic signs to be changed to sentence case. In 2010, it extended that order to all US cities. “Those extra milliseconds spent staring away from the road have been shown to increase the likelihood of accidents, particularly among older drivers,” read one article. The government commissioned Meeker and Associates to design a new font for the redesign: Clearview. Around 30 states adopted the font—and other countries followed the US’ lead, including Indonesia, Canada, and elsewhere.
On a municipal level, the shift to Clearview was met with a mixed reception. In Toronto, which started rolling out new “blue and white extruded aluminum local and arterial street signs” in Clearview in 2007, the loss of that city’s former “iconic acorn-style street sign” was much lamented. Meanwhile, in New York City—arguably the grumpiest city in the world—the total cost of replacing all street signs was $110 per sign, or $27.6 million overall. As one might expect, New Yorkers were not pleased with the change.
This year, however, the Federal Highway Administration changed course, and reverted from Clearview to Highway Gothic. Just twelve years after its much-celebrated rollout, the short, sweet reign of Clearview was over—taking the designers at Meeker and Associates by unfortunate surprise. It’s not quite clear what this will mean for the fonts of New York City in the next two years. Still, many signs have already been changed, and the increase in legibility is undeniable. 73 years to the day after Mr. Burgess wrote his poem to Mayor LaGuardia, we’d like to think he, at least, would be pleased by the results.
Font Founders: John Baskerville The next in our Font Founders series is John Baskerville (1706–1775), the English businessman, printer, & type designer, who said: “So much depends on appearing perfect.”
What does font weight mean, exactly?
The weight of a particular typeface is the thickness of the character outlines relative to its height. A typeface typically comes in a variety of weights from ultra-light to extra-bold, with as many as a dozen options.
Here’s an example of the Helvetica Neue typeface with numbers that indicate weight:
You might ask yourself, “How did those numbers become the standard measurement of font weight?”
In 1954, Adrian Frutiger was the first to introduce a range of weights using numerical classification. His groundbreaking Univers typeface featured a “two-digit numeration system where the first digit (3-8) indicated weight and the second indicated face-width and either roman or oblique.” Univers was the first “font family” designed as a complete collection of coordinated weights and widths, with the normal weight of 55 being the starting point.
Pictured: a “periodic table” he created for the Univers family
In Frutiger’s system, 35 was Extra Light, 45 was Light, 55 Medium or Regular, 65 Bold, 75 Extra Bold, 85 Extra Bold, and 95 was Ultra Bold or Black. He also included alternate numbers for Italics (“6 series”) and Condensed (“7 series”).
The popularity of Univers led to Frutiger being commissioned by Monotype to create Apollo, their first typeface designed specifically for phototypesetting. He was also hired to design the Roissy typeface for signage at Charles De Gaulle Airport (below).
He became immensely popular and his work quickly spread around the globe—his typefaces appeared on London’s iconic street signs…
…San Francisco’s BART trains, and even early Apple keyboards.
In 1997, Frutiger revised the Univers typeface and created Linotype Univers, a family that consisted of 63 fonts, including weight options like Ultra Light or Extended Heavy. The new numbering system was extended to three digits to reflect the expanded number of variations.
*When Web Fonts were introduced, the numbering system was borrowed from this Linotype model.*
For 60 years, Frutiger’s “clean” and “legible” designs were the toast of the typography industry. But perhaps his biggest contribution to design was the introduction of the weight system.
Award-winning typeface designer Erik Spiekermann called Frutiger “the best type designer of the 20th century.” He also paid him a huge compliment when he said “I know of no other typeface designer who can put so much feeling into a systematic approach. Frutiger’s typefaces are always carefully planned, but they never look like it.”
The next great type designer in our Font Founders series: William Addison Dwiggins, who designed the fonts Electra and Caledonia, among others. Dwiggins coined the term ‘graphic designer’ in 1922 to describe what he did, which included book design, typography, lettering, and calligraphy.
“There is no harm in ‘novelty,’ indeed, novelty keeps things fresh & alive.” – Frederic Goudy
A “short, plump, pinkish, and puckish gentleman,” Frederic Goudy was not always a type designer. In fact, until the age of 40, he was a bookkeeper for a realtor in Chicago. But despite being a late bloomer, he never lost his taste for novelty.
Cheers, Goudy! Today we’re partying “Old Style” with you.