Sorry, Helvetica, you’re not my type

old-book-5-1472673Typographic design is a rich and sorely overlooked form of art, yet one that has a profound role in shaping our relationship with the world and the information we take in.

Sometimes, the medium can be as significant as the message and this is underlined by the number of typefaces that exist and the care that goes into selecting the right one for the given job.

But typography has advanced and evolved like other arts, moving through distinct historical styles and phases, and has been prone to the same ills. A good example of this is the modernist icon Helvetica (below), designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger with help from Eduard Hoffmann.

HelveticaSpecimenCHIt represents the modernist penchant for monolithic geometrical simplicity in which all vestiges of identity and even humanity are stripped away. It lacks any sociocultural specificity and could be adopted as the typeface of anything and everything – as, indeed, it has been. The way in which Helvetica appears machined to perfection also means it bears little sign of the human hand behind it.

Just watch Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary, Helvetica, to see the way it splits designers on its visual message, with those on one extreme branding it the typeface of democracy and those on the other the typeface of fascism.

One typographer who addresses a key issue raised by Helvetica is self-styled “Typomaniac” Erik Spiekermann, who has produced fonts including Berliner Grotesk, Meta and Officina.

While his work covers humanist faces in the main, he recognises that type also still needs to communicate feeling – and that maintaining an emotional impact can be difficult for typographers in the digital age.

Old typefaces conveyed a sense of tradition and a shared culture in their forms but their means of creation and transmission were also important contributors to the warm, human element of their message package.


Letters cut in blocks for presses were inevitably not perfect and each would have tiny, almost imperceptible flaws that would be exacerbated by years of wear and tear. In contrast, a typeface created via software on screen will end up, just like Helvetica, looking machined to perfection.

The consequence of this, Spiekermann says, is that the eye misses those tiny flaws, those marks of the crafting human hand and the sense of warmth that they give the letterforms. The reader is left cold and the overall message package loses some small measure of impact.

His brilliant solution is to painstakingly build tiny imperfections into the characters of every digital typeface he creates as a way of retaining this quality and catering for the reader’s mostly subconscious visual cravings.

The result is imperfect letters that are, in fact, perfectly formed.