Helvetica and Alternatives to Helvetica

Helvetica is a classic. Helvetica is played out. Each of these statements is true to an extent. The world’s most recognizable typeface will soon star in a new film that documents both its omnipresence and its timelessness.

There are many reasons why Helvetica is so widespread. The most obvious being that a few weights have been bundled with the Mac OS for years. It is arguably the most respectable of the “default” fonts. But it’s also used because it’s a safe, neutral choice. For many purposes, typography is more about content than style. Fans of Beatrice Warde will tell you that typographers should communicate without distraction. Helvetica, with its simple, unadorned forms, is the perfect crystal goblet. Even its ubiquity contributes to its neutrality — letters so common they become invisible.

But invisibility isn’t always appropriate, particularly in advertising or branding where individuality is key. Here we recommend our favorite fonts from the grotesque genre that offer something different from Helvetica (or Arial) — whether it’s style, warmth, or extra features like small caps, figure alternates, and additional widths.

Cool, Crisp, Clean

Much of Helvetica’s appeal comes from its cold, almost clinical modernity. Here are some related sans serif fonts that exude that vibe.

Univers font

Univers™ — Univers is widely considered Adrian Frutiger’s masterpiece. Its 27 styles go from Ultra Condensed Thin to Extra Extended Black, but still give an impression of steadiness and homogeneity when combined.

Why it’s not Helv: In some ways, even more spare (no beards or tails). Uniformity across a broad spectrum of styles.

Heldustry font

Heldustry™ — In 1978, prolific photo type designer Phil Martin added “just the right touch of Eurostile‘s squareness” to Helvetica and created a new font for a cable TV news network.

Why it’s not Helv: You’ve probably never seen it. And for those who are looking for something unique, that can be the most important characteristic.

FF Schulbuch font

FF Schulbuch™ — A series of fonts based on the historical textbook types used in Northern and Southern Germany, and Bavaria. The Nord (North) variant is the closest relative of Helvetica.

Why it’s not Helv: A single-story ‘a’ and tailed ‘l’. Vintage Deutsch cachet.

Neuzeit S font

Neuzeit S™ — Wilhelm C. Pischner’s Neuzeit Grotesk preceded Helvetica by more than 30 years. The more humanist Neuzeit S was introduced by Linotype-Hell AG in 1966, intended for large bodies of text.

Why it’s not Helv: A gentle, almost Avenir-ish geometry.

Maxima font

Maxima™ — In 1990 Gerd Wunderlich revisited Univers and created this slightly more contemporary option.

Paralucent font

Paralucent™ — The first text sans serif from Rian Hughes, a master of stylized display faces. It still shows signs of his distinctive hand, from the big round ‘i’ dots and wedge terminals to the daring lowercase ‘g’. Paralucent was designed to be more consistent than Helvetica, and a solid modern workhorse of a font, elegant enough for headline and robust enough for text.

Why it’s not Helv: Where do I start? More square than round. Extra large x-height. Extra tight spacing (loosen it up for small copy). A stencil version!

Getting Warmer

Helvetica is often classified as a “neo-grotesque”. Here are some older grotesques marked by idiosyncrasies and irregularities. They feel warmer, less manufactured — better suited for delivering subject matter that requires a more handcrafted vehicle.

Basic Commercial font

Basic Commercial™ — Appearing in hot metal at the turn of the 20th century, Basic Commercial (like Akzidenz-Grotesk®) is based on designs which influenced all the modern grotesques that followed. Basic Commercial was distributed for many years in the United States under the name Standard Series which is seen most notably in Massimo Vignelli’s signage for the New York City subway.

Why it’s not Helv: Angled stroke endings (‘S’, ‘C’, ‘e’) open up the counters and add life. Taller ascenders lend elegance.

FF Bau font

FF Bau™ — Helvetica is cold and calculated, but its roots lie in much quirkier material. Its earliest direct ancestor was first introduced around 1880. Christian Schwartz updated the family for contemporary needs without rationalizing away the spirit and warmth of the original.

Why it’s not Helv: A double-storey ‘g’. Lowercase ‘a’ keeps its tail in all weights. Optional oldstyle figures.

Grotesque MT font

Monotype Grotesque™ — A British type from the 1900s, MT Grotesque’s ten very different styles read like a timeline of grots to come — Bell Gothic, Trade Gothic, Helvetica — but none of those match its warmth and character. See it big and you’ll get what I mean.

Why it’s not Helv: Delightfully irregular, a type that shows signs of rough cut metal.

Folio font

Folio™ — Designed by Konrad F. Bauer and Walter Baum, and released in several weights and widths by the Bauer Type Foundry from 1956 to 1963.

Why it’s not Helv: Key differences are in ‘a’, ‘G’, and ‘Q’. Warmer and more irregular overall.

Venus font

Venus™ — Created in the early 1900s, Venus precedes Helvetica by many years. Some sources note that it was designed for German map production.

Why it’s not Helv: Antique, not modernist. Very idiosyncratic for that vintage hot metal look.

Region font

ARS Region™ — A brand new release from a brand new foundry, ARS Type, Region is Helvetica with trademark Shamal oddities.

Why it’s not Helv: Would be cold and crisp if it weren’t for the soft stroke connections on letters like the ‘G’, ‘t’, and ‘k’. A lowercase ‘g’ that takes FF Meta’s lead. Small caps available.

Titling Gothic font

Titling Gothic™ — The newest family on our list is also the most extensive. FB Titling Gothic is an immense series of nearly fifty styles inspired by that century-old favorite ATF Railroad Gothic (see also: Wilma).

Why it’s not Helv: Every possible width you could need for setting headlines. Antique, American flavor. Very little stroke modulation, even in heavy and wide styles.

Adesso font

Adesso™ — French designer Thierry Puyfoulhoux’s rounded sans is the furthest from Helvetica on this list, but it’s definitely soft and warm while maintaining the basic grotesque lettershapes.

Further Afield

P.J. Onori offers another set of alternatives for those looking for a clean sans that veers even further from Helvetica. Or you can plunge right into FontShop’s Sans fonts category and find what works best for you.

The Timeless Classic

Neue Helvetica font

Neue Helvetica — Despite all the substitutes, sometimes the old reliable is still the best bet. Neue Helvetica (German for “New”) is the most complete and usable set of Helvetica fonts. Over the years, the Helvetica family was expanded to include many different weights, but these were not as well coordinated with each other as they might have been. In 1983, D. Stempel AG redesigned and digitized the “Neue Helvetica” typeface for Linotype and made it a self-contained font family.

SEE MORE: View some of these typefaces in more detail in our February newsletter or test them all at once at FontShop.com.

56 Comments:

  1. Very nice post. I am always interested in learning of new minimalist sans typefaces. I can only use Helvetica so much before I start to feel like I’m getting in a rut.

    Posted by P.J. Onori on Feb. 5, 2007
  2. Fantastic alternatives. However, I wish that Maxima, Folio and Venus had background information as well.

    Posted by J Stone on Feb. 6, 2007
  3. You forgot Unica? or is this only open to discussion about the fonts ‘you sell’ rather than a generalist discussion on typography?

    Posted by anonandon on Feb. 6, 2007
  4. Extremely well done all around.

    Posted by mike trozzo on Feb. 6, 2007
  5. J – Agreed. It’s on the way.

    anon – I love Unica too. Unfortunately it’s not available for licensing anywhere due to trademark disputes. Read more about it in Corey Holms’ article for Grafik.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Feb. 6, 2007
  6. I would add dada grotesk (optimo.ch), akkurat (lineto), galaxie polaris (vllg) to the list.

    Posted by romesh on Feb. 6, 2007
  7. I recommend checking out Vectora.

    Posted by SPDSF on Feb. 6, 2007
  8. Thanks, SP. Vectora is certainly an underappreciated face, but I generally limited this list to grotesques that are closer to Helvetica rather than venturing into the realm of Trade and News Gothics.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Feb. 6, 2007
  9. I agree: good selection. I created a post about it in my cool hunting blog.

    Posted by ELMANCO / Stefano Ricci on Feb. 26, 2007
  10. digi grotesk could also be considered.

    Posted by forcetwelve on Feb. 28, 2007
  11. Nice post, I like Helvetica and use it always. It’s good to see some qualities of Helvetica showed in another typefaces. Good selection.

    Posted by Pedro Assumpção on Oct. 3, 2007
  12. Sorry, but you forgot the Arial Typeface. I know, typographers will hate this, but informatics still love it!

    Cheers

    Posted by Ioanus on Jan. 20, 2008
  13. I stumbled upon this alternative while reading about the list of the 100 best fonts ever. Very nice alternatives, altough i like the Helvetica pretty much, but it is always nice to give other fonts a chance.

    Posted by HK Kommunikationsdesign on Jan. 23, 2008
  14. What about Syntax?!

    If you include Univers you have to add Frutiger too.

    Posted by JC on Sep. 23, 2008
  15. Hi JC, thanks for your comment. The reason Syntax and Frutiger are not included in this article is that they belong in the humanist subclass of sans serifs. Helvetica and its ilk are grotesques. If we were to include any sans that might be a replacement for Helvetica there are literally hundreds of typefaces we could offer, but the goal of this article is to list those typefaces that share most of their characteristics with Helvetica yet offer something different.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Sep. 23, 2008
  16. Akzidenz Grotesk!

    Posted by Erik Brandt on Sep. 23, 2008
  17. I second that one Erik!

    Posted by Daniel Walkington on Nov. 9, 2008
  18. Yes, would definitely add the beautifully crafted Dada Grotesk, by optimo.ch

    Posted by Lodma on Dec. 17, 2008
  19. How can I get Helvcetica Neue Condensed to use in Autocad.

    Posted by Patrick Olexa on Mar. 4, 2009
  20. That depends on a number of factors, like what operating system you use the software on, what type of fonts are supported by both the AutoCad software and the aforementioned OS, and so on. Your best bet is to contact FontShop and somebody from Support or Research will get back to you.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Mar. 4, 2009
  21. That is a really good overview. Can’t believe that I did’t recognize this post before.

    Erik B.: AG is probably not featured because Basic Commercial is basically (but not commercially) the same.

    Posted by Indra on Jun. 9, 2009
  22. Thank you, Indra! That means a lot coming from the co-author of a critically-acclaimed book on Helvetica.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Jun. 9, 2009
  23. Thanks really like what i’m reading here!

    Posted by Edwin on Jul. 10, 2009
  24. i really love helvetica, but once in a while is good to have a formal refresment. good information.thanks.

    Posted by ivette on Jul. 10, 2009
  25. I would add Akkurat (Lineto) to this list.

    Posted by Bogdan Popescu on Aug. 18, 2009
  26. Nice listing. Miss AG, Arial and BMW Type, and some Folio, Heldustry, Unica. Maybe you could have added some historical background, on how this style developed form Steinschrift serif-cut-off Didot or Walbaum, on the Linotype equal character width that makes its italics so “bad”, on the crown pen, on stylistic influences, etc. Some large text samples would have been extremely usefull too.

    Posted by Peter Van Lancker on Aug. 24, 2009
  27. Thanks for not mentioning Arial. This font is a typographic illness and has nothing (or less) to do with good typography.

    Posted by hotmac on Feb. 9, 2010
  28. We use Maxima and Univers quite a fair bit as alternatives. Works out well all the time I must say!

    Posted by Morgan and Me on Oct. 16, 2010
  29. In our 2011 world… Are there any open source / royalty free alternatives that you would recommend?

    Posted by Bk on Jan. 3, 2011
  30. You can find Arial on most machines, but I would not exactly recommend it. You know, with free fonts you usually get what you pay for. There are exceptions.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jan. 3, 2011
  31. (Newbie warning)

    I loved Paralucent when I first stumbled upon it, but then I came to the lowercase letter g. The designer has chosen to use the double-story lowercase g with an un-finished loop, which really stands out from the rest and makes it harder to work with in designs. For many uses, I think it would work better if the lowercase g had a tail which was similar to the lowercase y. In the italic version, the loweracse g and y have identical tails.

    This raises two questions:

    1. Why did the designer choose this solution?
    2. Would it be possible to create an alternative version with a new lowercase g (and possibly a single-story lowercase a and a new italic lowercase f)?

    I would be excited to read some answers.

    Posted by Simon on Jan. 5, 2011
  32. I use Century Gothic almost all of the time now. Check it out.

    Posted by Josh on Jan. 24, 2011
  33. I saw another site that recommended Swiss 721 Regular. It comes pretty close.

    Posted by Adrian on Oct. 25, 2011
  34. Arial all the way!

    Arial rules, every other Helvetica alternative drools!

    Posted by Willie Gates on Dec. 8, 2011
  35. Adrian, Swiss 721 is Bitstream’s digitisation of Helvetica. Different name, same design.

    And Willie, there is a reason why we didn’t include Arial. And it’s not because it “rules”, quite the contrary. ; )

    Posted by Yves Peters on Dec. 8, 2011
  36. great reading, really enjoyed it.
    what about mercator? i know its not a buyable typeface, but it seems to get alot of attention….

    Posted by peter svenningsen on Feb. 21, 2012
  37. it look’s good!

    Posted by Andreas Maucher on Feb. 29, 2012
  38. Some really sexy fonts there !

    Posted by add in children on Apr. 19, 2012
  39. Bureau Grotesque should be in there ! And Brazilia
    And Vonnes, and Maria by Phil Baber, and Neue Haas Grotesk but I guess the latter is closer to being the metal cast Helvetica than the digitized one so perhaps its more Helvetica than Helvetica !

    Posted by Arnoud on May. 29, 2012
  40. Everyone should just make life simple and use Arial. If it’s good enough for the Internet and for Windows, it’s good enough for everything.

    Posted by Bodoni San Seriffe on Jul. 30, 2012
  41. Everyone should just make life simple and eat potatoes. If it’s good enough for the Belgians, it’s good enough for everything. ; ) : P

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jul. 31, 2012
  42. We are Arial.

    All your font are belong to us.

    You will be assimilated!

    Posted by Locutus on Aug. 10, 2012
  43. Can you tell what is alternative to Helvetica Neue Ultralight? (LT 25)

    Posted by Some Guy on Sep. 23, 2012
  44. Arial is the alternative to Helvetica Neue Upright. It is the alternative to all archaic Helvetica and its variants. Time to get with the 21st century…

    Posted by Ivan Pyotors on Oct. 15, 2012
  45. I myself have come to love FF Bau as my secondary typeface (next to FF DIN). I almost went out to buy Akzidenz Grotesk but couldn’t stand Berthold’s buying options.
    Erik Spiekermann via Twitter then recommended Theinhardt from Optimo to me as an alternative to Akzidenz Grotesk though, and that could have been a great choice too.

    Posted by Niko Kitsakis on Dec. 9, 2012
  46. Aktiv Grotesk???

    Posted by Bould on Dec. 10, 2012
  47. This has been rather helpful. As a young “leisure writer”, one of the feelings I most relish is that of finding THE perfect font…yanno, after eons and eons. :P Anyway, I do have a question: what font did you use where it says “post a comment”, “getting warmer”, “cool, crisp, clean”, “the timeless classic”, etcetera?…I need it for a short story. It’s just the right kind of sexy. Thanks in advance, and great job. Oh, and happy new year!

    Posted by Chanelle on Jan. 3, 2013
  48. All fonts except Arial should be banned.

    Posted by Ivan Pyotors on Jan. 31, 2013
  49. Arial forever. All of these other worthless fonts should be cast into the garbage-dump of history.

    Posted by La Chapelle on Feb. 15, 2013
  50. Microsoft knew that Helvetica was grotesque–in more ways than one–years ago. That’s why they gave us Arial to replace it with. And didn’t even charge a cent for it! Now Arial is taking over the world. Accept it and get with the program!

    Posted by Bodoni San Seriffe on Mar. 12, 2013
  51. A multiplatform Helvetica-like font stack that suppresses Arial: http://t.co/gIxAjCJ8Rk .

    Posted by Gavin R. Putland on Nov. 26, 2013
  52. Arial cannot be suppressed. Arial is taking over cyberspace and is unstoppable. Arial will be the end of all other fonts. Its reign will last forever.

    Posted by Bodoni San Seriffe on Jan. 20, 2014
  53. Arial is the best font ever created. Robin Nicholas and Patricia Saunders will enter the inner circle of the pantheon of great font creators for their work on Arial. Use Arial, and nothing but Arial. There is no substitute.

    Posted by Bodoni San Seriffe on Jun. 26, 2014
  54. What Ivan Pyotors said is not true. A lot of fonts should be banned, but limiting the world to just Arial is way too draconian. At the very least, leave Zapf Dingbats as a legal font. Anyone who refuses to use Arial for their text can use Zapf Dingbats instead.

    Posted by Jim Octavius on Jul. 3, 2014
  55. OK, Zapf Dingbats for anyone who doesn’t want to use Arial. And we’ll also allow Wingdings, for anyone who’s too cheap to license Zapf Dingbats.

    Posted by Ivan Pyotors on Jul. 22, 2014
  56. I think this blog should convert to using Zapf Dingbats as the main text font, actually. Zapf Dingbats should be used much more often than it is.

    Posted by Jack Sprain on Jul. 29, 2014

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