The Font Of The 20th Century

The miscellany gods at Slate have compiled a slideshow describing how companies such as American Airlines, Sears, Target, ConEd, Verizon, and the New York Subway system use the font Helvetica to convey a sense of “modern efficiency with a human face.”

Ultimately, Helvetica is a cipher–and this is the key to its success. It can be authoritative or ironic, sober or idealistic, corporate or cozy. It’s the tofu of typefaces: bland in itself but ready to absorb whatever flavors you add to it. It’s clean, legible, and well-designed, but its real power lies in its uncanny mutability.

Though we seldom think of many of the companies using Helvetica as efficient, it’s nice to know what they were striving for when they chose their font. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

The Helvetica Hegemony [Slate]
(Photo: dantegeek)


Edit Your Comment

  1. LAGirl says:

    i’m more of a Copperplate Gothic Light girl.

  2. timmus says:

    I do some small publishing of science books and I’ve always felt the Helvetica family to be somewhat impersonal, due to its extremely clean lines. In fact it looks like a typeface that a big German bank might use. I think a slightly friendlier font is Franklin. You might have seen it on the retro PBS show The Electric Company.

  3. Gloria says:

    There was a hit flick about the font at this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto. Very entertaining, and of course, great to look at.

  4. Jon Parker says:

    I usually used Gil Sans where a Helvetica-type face (ar ar) was needed. Helvetica used to be a perfectly respectable font, but its inclusion on the Macintosh led to overuse. Now it’s just old and boring.

  5. AcidReign says:

    …..I’ve never had the luxury of Helvetica on my computers. Arial works pretty well, though, even if the purists think it’s cheap. The overwhelming majority of documents I create these days use Arial for the main body, and maybe Times New Roman for “fancy” titling. If I’m typing a more essay-esqe document, I might reverse that, using Times for the body, and, say Arial Bold for the titles.

    …..I skip documents done in things like Old English text and Lucida Handwriting. My time is too valuable to wade through eye-straining fonts…

  6. AcidReign says:

    …..There is also the question, if you use non-standard fonts, of how the doc is going to display on someone else’s computer.

  7. compulsiveshouter says:

    we’d live happier lives if all corporate documents were printed in comic sans.

  8. Kierst_thara says:

    @AcidReign: …That’s what PDFs are for. Seriously, if you care at all about how your document looks, Word files are the worst things to send. They almost never display consistently from computer to computer.

  9. AcidReign says:

    …..@Kierst_thara: Actually, I prefer to send plain text emails, if at all possible. PDF’s make most folk I know groan more than a .doc. Unless they’ve installed Foxit Reader.

  10. PenguinBlue says:

    As long as they never start using Comica Sans. Eugh.

  11. roothorick says:

    I really have to question whether companies really are consciously choosing a font. I would imagine most companies decided to use Helvetica or its Microsoft knockoff Arial just because of its ubiquity, as everyone recognizes one or the other (or one AS the other) so it’s familiar.

    By the by, there’s an excellent article on the history of Helvetica and Arial, and their differences, here:

  12. crnk says:

    @roothorick: I think they are. Well, companies themselves don’t really choose fonts to begin with, since that is usually (in most intelligent cases) handled by a graphic design firm–either outsourced or in house

    I saw a documentary about helvetica about a month ago in one of its early showings. AMAZING! To think… turns 50 this year and still is is just as used as when it was created.

  13. lpranal says:


    not to hate, it’s a beautiful font and all, but i think by the early 2000’s copperplate goth. had already reached “overused” status. Wait a few years for it to wrap all the way around to “retro/ironic” status

  14. Kierst_thara says:

    @AcidReign: If you just want your written content to be the focus, then sure, plain text is a perfectly practical format.

    What peeves me about Word is that so many people waste their time ‘designing’ a document that looks good on their computer, but they don’t understand why it looks like crap when they send it someone else. If you’re going to take the time to pick specific fonts/margins/line spacing etc. to begin with, then why throw that away by e-mailing it out as a Word file? If it’s worth setting up as something other than plain text, then it’s worth PDFing.

    That being said, I agree that it wouldn’t kill Adobe to make a less bloated PDF reader.

  15. queenmizz says:

    If I had kids, I’d name them after some of my favorite fonts: Helvetica and Charlotte (if girls), Garamond or Bookman (boys) and of course Little Dingbat for the baby.

  16. jkschlitz says:

    @Kierst_thara: Agreed. I work for a small printer, and we get Word files from clients a lot. They hardly ever look the way they’re supposed to and people never understand why. It’s maddening.

  17. AcidReign says:

    …..I may have to try the little PDF creator software I have installed. These days, I’m back to my manual typewriter roots. I got so irritated at blogs ignoring my paragraph indents that I tried just putting five spaces at the beginning. Nope, didn’t work. Blog software pretty much universally tosses extra spaces. Something about disk space, I’ll bet…

    …..I used to force MSIE to indent blog posts with a bit of HTML:
    [p class=MsoNormal][span style=’mso-tab-count:1′]xxxxx[/span]

    (I’ve substituted brackets for the actual greater-than/less than delimiters for HTML, and x’s for spaces!)

    but this stopped working when I switched to Firefox. I gave up coding, and just started using five periods to start my paragraphs! I accept whatever word-wrapping the recipient’s computer might want to show. If I absolutely HAVE to have a table in it, well, I’ve resorted to converting my table into a .jpg…

  18. LAGirl says:


    whaaaaaaat?? i’m using an outdated font? dang. i’m so uncool.

  19. The Bigger Unit says:

    I’m sold on Garamond, though to me, it looks better when printed than on the actual screen.

    Wow…a thread about who uses which font…

  20. zolielo says:

    Garamond or Times, yeah that is the way I roll… ;)

  21. anmlStyl says:


    mm, it’s

    and I just checked for the screening here in the SF Bay Area and it’s sold out. nards!

  22. Her Grace says:

    Maybe I just spend too much time online, but I’m really fond of Verdana. It’s so…squishy.

  23. Rob1855 says:

    Yeah, but their efforts are lost on me..

    I’m a 21st century guy.

  24. MentalDisconnect says:

    It’s all about “Courier New” for me. Looks modern and digital- a touch like “Matrix”, which appeals to my demographic (18-24 male). Her Grace, I like Verdana too. In IM, or personal e-mails, I sometimes use “Jenkins” because it looks like my handwriting. Perhaps a bit hard to read. I’ve put too much thought into this. I need to be a graphic artist.

  25. Joey B says:

    Helvetica is a typeface, not a font. You’d think if Slate was going to all the trouble of posting a 10 page humpfest to Helvetica’s 50 year anniversary, they’d get it right.

  26. Gloria says:

    @Joey B: What’s the difference?

  27. Joey B says:

    @Gloria: The difference is, a typeface is a particular design style of type. The font is the point size of the type. There are many different fonts of a particular typeface.

    It may sound like a niggling point, but it just underscores the lack of fundamental knowledge of printing by many people in “publishing”.

  28. I love it when font geeks nerd it out! It’s been a long time for me.

  29. Echodork says:

    @compulsiveshouter: we’d live happier lives if all corporate documents were printed in comic sans.

    Ours are. We’re not.

  30. joopiter says:

    @compulsiveshouter: Comic Sans makes my blood boil. But then again I’m a design geek. I look through the Adobe Type Library font book and see pages and pages of all the different weights of Helvetica, all neatly typeset and I go to a place of zen.

  31. Nytmare says:

    …..This is really obnoxious.

  32. pestie says:

    @AcidReign: Blog software pretty much universally tosses extra spaces. Something about disk space, I’ll bet…

    No. That’s a feature of HTML, actually. All whitespace in HTML is reduced to a single space.

    I gave up coding, and just started using five periods to start my paragraphs!

    You should be arrested for crimes against humanity for such practices. I can’t even fathom the kind of twisted mind that thinks starting each paragraph with five dots is less ugly than a lack of paragraph indents.

  33. AcidReign says:

    …..It appears that the Typeset Police are after me! Aieeeee!

  34. dcndn says:

    I can’t believe they’d choose a sans-serif font as “Font of the Century;” what a disaster. Helvetica and its stylistic ilk look like they were drawn with crayons: obese, inelegant, and hard to read. Give me a Garamond or a Bembo any day. Put them in small caps and I’ll let you stay the night.