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™ — 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.
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™ — 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.
Why it’s not Helv: A gentle, almost Avenir-ish geometry.
Maxima™ — In 1990 Gerd Wunderlich revisited Univers and created this slightly more contemporary option.
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!
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™ — 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™ — 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.
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™ — 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™ — 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.
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™ — 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™ — 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.
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 — 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.
The FontFeed is a daily dispatch of recommended fonts, typography techniques, and inspirational examples of digital type at work in the real world. Eat up.
- FF Meta Light with PMN Caecilia in Real Simple magazine. Just as there is often a need for extra heavy type,…Read more
- In a previous Type Basics we examined the difference between a typeface and a font. Both terms refer to a…Read more
- ’Twas the eve before FIFA World Cup, when all through the world, people were professing their love for the noble…Read more
- Font Bureau’s latest release includes: Titling Gothic, a versatile new family that’s being put to use in publications like the…Read more
- Gregory Solenström produced an impressive music video for “Hello Brooklyn”, as a tribute to New York, Brooklyn and Jay-Z.…Read more