Looking Closely at “What Works” with the Sans Serif

Looking across a slew of Apple devices—from iPhones to iPods, to iPads or a MacBook Pro, what typeface do you see? Or do you even notice? Start noticing!

It’s Helvetica! Or actually, it used to be. A few years back they adjusted the primary system font to a more “modern” variation of it—called “Helvetica Neue.”

My first experience with Helvetica was in a typography class in graphic design school in New York. As our junior year design teacher Heinz described the letterforms in his heavy German accent, I must admit I had very little appreciation for the typeface. That said, as we were ‘coerced’ to hand-render the entire alphabet with pen and ink, I experienced the forms in a way that was at least helpful for gaining in understanding of the similarities, differences and reasons to use the typeface (or ones like it) before using others. As I hand rendered the letterforms, they became a more unique part of my personal experience.

Clean, simple and “machined” by its creator, the typeface “Helvetica” has crept into our culture over the last 50 years. Not unlike your favorite pair of well-worn shoes, we experience both comfort and disdain for this typeface that is both old and new—it shows up in some of the oldest graphic design books available as well as constructivist posters: and here it is on the iPhone 5.

Oh Helvetica. How we love and hate thee.

Helvetica is a contemporary typeface of Swiss origin. In the first textbook I ever used on typography, it was classified as one of the “Five Classic Typefaces.” Over the years, it has put emphasis ON the content, yet today it is readily becoming THE content—yes, Helvetica is here to stay.

From storefronts to signage, techno-gadgets to constructivist T-shirts, automobile logos to toothpaste, Helvetica is pervasive and surrounds us like the re-emergence of the 70s tie-die or bell-bottoms. Ultimately, fashion survives, and so do design decisions that make sense—as they are embraced and approved by culture all around us.

So why use it?
It’s versatile, classic (not classical) and readable.

Like many sans serif typefaces, it’s strong, clean, and highly geometric, (built and constructed from shapes). This sans (‘without’) serif typeface is reliant on structure, negative space, and the interaction of figure and ground. It is supremely underrated—but it is all around us.

It could often be construed as a very “generic” typeface, not unlike Arial. But the “Neue” variation in particular, offers a great deal of flexibility in its use—especially due to its expanded typestyles no often seen in other fonts: light, ultra light, regular, medium, bold and condensed styles, with italics for all of those are available.

But on the iPhone: Just Helvetica Neue… regular. Or at least—no italics.
This version tends to be more balanced, with slightly more even stroke weights, and slightly wider individual characters.

It’s truly a typeface open to interpretation: say everything—or say nothing, and this leaves the door open for your content, but done with a strong, modern framework to place it upon. The experience is kept “clutter free,” and this works wonderfully for the iPhone.

That said, it might not be appropriate for everything.

Helvetica is not a classical painting by Leonardo. It does not have the flowing movement of a serif typeface, and it is not dynamic and evolving, and it does not create that level of depth in its appreciation. It’s strong, firm, and speaks with conviction. It’s meant to build things on, and is more like the white base coat treatment for the canvas than the actual painting. It works great large, but not as good at 12 point, so use it as a framework for your brilliant content. San serif fonts are often most effective at larger sizes.

Helvetica is a perfect example of what you need to look for when thinking about using a sans serif typeface. Put a few side-by-side—ideally set with your content, squint sometimes, and consider how it feels when used. Also be wary when using a large amount of a sans serif font in smaller sizes.

What’s the message you wish to communicate in your designs? The simplicity of a sans serif can be something to build your accents upon. Italic serif fonts or script fonts offer some brilliant contrasts with a sans serif at it’s foundation—or alternatively, stay with one font like Helvetica Neue, and capitalize on it’s different typestyles for emphasis: using ultra light or light for much of your copy, and italics, regular or even bold for more emphatic emphasis. By sticking to one typeface in this way, you have variety (type styles) AND unity (one font) in your designs that make your audience confident in your skills, as well allow them to absorb your content.

Helvetica. Check out the movie of the same name. In theorizing about its first invention and appearance on the design scene, a movie interviewee exclaims:

“It just felt so good to be taking something old and dusty, and homemade and crappy looking, and then replacing it with shiny Helvetica.” Goofy old brochures became restored and shiny.”

Was the iPhone ever “crappy?” That’s probably debatable to many, but when phones became ‘smart,’ perhaps they learned a lot by embracing the refreshing simplicity of Helvetica.

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