TypeTalk: Good Looking Helvetica at Any Size

Helvetica is one of the most well-known and widely used typefaces in the world. It can be seen everywhere from signage (including the New York subway system), logos and branding, book covers, magazines, posters, as well as many forms of digital usage. It is even the subject of a movie: Helvetica: The Film is Gary Hustwit’s popular 2007 documentary about this typeface.

A still from the Helvetica documentary trailer.

A still from the Helvetica documentary trailer.

Originally designed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger for the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland, Helvetica was designed to be a neutral, legible sans serif typeface that could be used for a broad range of usages, and could compete with the then popular typeface, Akzidenz Grotesk.

In 1983, Linotype developed Neue Helvetica. This version is a reworking of the 1957 original with design modifications as well as an expanded character set. Neue Helvetica encompasses both aesthetic and technical refinements and modifications intended to improve appearance and consistence amongst the various versions, as well as increase legibility and usefulness. More weights and widths were added as well. (Read more about Helvetica vs. Neue Helvetica here.)

A visual history of Helvetica.

A visual history of Helvetica.

The differences between Helvetica and Neue Helvetica are intended to improve appearance and performance without changing the overall design.

The differences between Helvetica and Neue Helvetica are intended to improve appearance and performance without changing the overall design.

A version of Neue Helvetica has been developed by Monotype specifically for text usage on the Web and digital devices. Neue Helvetica eText has (most importantly) more open spacing, a slightly taller x-height, as well as richer weight contrast. These fonts can be licensed for Web use, or purchased outright for any usage.

The design tweaks between the original and eText versions of Helvetica might be subtle, but the spacing differences are quite obvious.

The design tweaks between the original and eText versions of Helvetica might be subtle, but the spacing differences are quite obvious.

No matter which version of Helvetica you use, it is important to know how to use it effectively, and to avoid the most widespread typographic “faux pas” associated with its usage. 

Helvetica in Use

In order to learn how to best typeset Helvetica, it is essential to understand a bit of the typeface design process first. Fonts are designed, spaced, and kerned to look best and work well at a particular size range – usually either text or display. This is because the larger the type size, the more open the spacing looks; conversely, the smaller the type size, the tighter the letterspacing looks. For this reason, and to compensate for this optical effect, display designs (should) have tighter spacing, while text typefaces (should) have more open spacing. Some typefaces – including Helvetica – maintain their design integrity at sizes outside of their intended range, but might need some tweaks to their spacing for the reasons cited above.

Helvetica was designed primarily for display, and for this reason, has appropriately tight letterspacing. Yet the design does hold up at smaller sizes – but the spacing does not. Therefore, adjustments need to be made when used for text in order to open the too-tight spacing at small sizes, which in turn will increase its readability. Spacing can be adjusted using the tracking feature available in most design programs. Depending on the chosen weight and size, open the tracking enough to create a pleasing, balanced color and texture – the smaller the type, the more open the letterspacing. When used in lower resolution environments such as newsprint or low-res digital devices, open the spacing a bit more. Additionally, if the Helvetica text is being set in reverse, in CMYK or any scenario other than a solid color of ink, it might need to be opened a bit more to offset the illusion of appearing tighter than the same setting on a light or white background. 

Although developed for digital use, Neue Helvetica eText can be used for setting text in print for more readable results requiring no fussing with the tracking. These versions also include small caps and old style figures which are very useful for print usage.  

The addition of tracking to text settings of Helvetica has a major impact on its readability. The eText version has more open spacing, eliminating the need to fuss with tracking.

The addition of tracking to text settings of Helvetica has a major impact on its readability. The eText version has more open spacing (in addition to other adjustments), eliminating the need to fuss with tracking.

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Posted on: November 25, 2015

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography Workshops internationally. For more information on attending one or bringing it to your company, organization, or school, go to her site, call The Type Studio at 203-227-5929, or email Ilene at info@thetypestudio.com. Sign up for her free e‑newsletter, All Things Typographic, at www.thetypestudio.com.

1 Comment on TypeTalk: Good Looking Helvetica at Any Size

  1. One famous designer, whose name I of course forget, said that he has to have a good reason NOT to use Helvetica. I am 100 percent the opposite. That said, I think Ilene’s examples and comparisons are just delicious and we are lucky to have them.

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