Before personal computers sat on every desktop, “Helvetica” meant little to most of society. Now, the typeface designed in 1957, is a packaged “System Font” on just about every personal computer around the globe.
Originally designed by Swiss type foundry Haas (and called Neue Haas Grotesk), Helvetica was created to compete in the Swiss type market against Akzidenz Grotesk, a leading Sans Serif typeface of the time.
Unless you’re a design geek, this is of little interest. But either way, you’ve seen Helvetica everywhere. From Target Dept. Stores to subway signage in major cities, wherever you go, you’re bound to run across it.
Amongst designers Helvetica has a love it or hate it quality. There is even a documentary about it. As well there should be. It’s an iconic, simplistic design that has crossed into the everyday of lives of, well, everyone.
The designer in me appreciates Helvetica, and while it has its time and place, I almost always gravitate toward one of the equally well designed alternatives, and there are many. These are well designed typefaces you will not find on the free font sites that have take over the web. They are typefaces created over years of refinement using great precision. Thought went into every stroke, every curve, every ascender and descender. The negative space is equally as important to the type as the letters themselves. Helvetica uses the same precision, but I look elsewhere.
Here are a few of my favorite alternatives to Helvetica. There are of course, more than this, but these are a few of my favorites. Each has its own “voice” and potential uses. I’m not anti-helvetica, however there are many options I’d explore first.
Gotham: Designed by Tobias Frere-Jones in 2000, and originally comissioned by GQ Magazine, Gotham was inspired by mid-twentieth century architecture signage. Most recently Gotham was used on Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama Campaign Posters.
Frutiger: Designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1968 and commisioned by the Charles De Gaulle International Airport in France for a direction sign system.
Futura: Designed by Paul Renner and released in 1927, Futura is based off the geometric shapes and elements of the Bauhaus design style.
Franklin Gothic: Designed by Morris Fuller Benton in 1902. Benton also designed News Gothic, another of my favorites which I left off this list, as well as over 200 other faces. Gothic is an old term designating a “Sans-serif” typeface.
Gill Sans: Designed by Eric Gill in 1927, Gill Sans, like Helvetica is distributed as a system font in Mac OS X and is bundled in some versions of Microsoft products. Gill Sans was designed for London and North Eastern Railway’s posters and publicity material.
Interstate: This is one of my favorites. Designed by Tobias Frere-Jones between 1993 and 1999 and based on an alphabet drawn for the US Highway Administration in the 40s.
Akzidenz Grotesk: Released by H. Berthold AG type foundry in 1896, Akzidenz Grotesk heavily influenced the design of Neue Haas Grotesk, later called Helvetica. Often confused for Helvetica, Akzidenz Grotesk has many subtle differences, including a lower x-height (distance from the baseline to the top of the lowercase x). Contemporary versions of Akzidenz Grotesk have numerous variations.
Univers: Another designed by Adrian Frutiger, Univers came before Frutiger, designed in 1954. In 1997 Frutiger reworked the whole Univers family in cooperation with Linotype, creating Linotype Univers, a family which consists of 63 fonts.
Meta (sans): Designed by Erik Spiekermann in 1984 and commisioned by the German Federal Post, Meta was designed to be a readable sans serif at small point sizes.
Some more alternatives can be found over at Font Shop: Font Shop’s 13 Helvetica Alternatives