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Alternatives to Helvetica

By  Oct 30, 2010

Topics: Design

Since John and I choose to never use Helvetica/Arial, what do we use?

There are literally thousands of choices. At first glance, so many sans serifs look the same, but it always surprises us that once we start actually working with a sans, its beautiful individuality shows up. Sometimes an individual quirk in a typeface is perfect for that job, and sometimes it means we need to abandon that one and keep looking for another font.

A sans serif we have used often, Bailey Sans (designed by Kevin Bailey, available at ITCfonts.com), has more curves than you might expect and beautifully designed letterforms that create such a clean look.

Bailey Italic is not just slanted, but completely redesigned with even more curves than the roman version, providing a comfortable and friendly sans.

Although Bailey Sans is one of our favorites, it might be too comfortable for some projects. Occasionally we’ve gone looking for something sharp and spikey but still warm and humanistic, such as Verlag. Few sans serifs have pointy cap Ms, as shown here, which is what we wanted for a particular design look, but we also liked its complete lack of ornamentation combined with its modern movement away from strict geometric shapes.

Hypatia Sans (Thomas Phinney, Robert Slimbach, and Miguel Sousa, available at adobe.com) also has pointy Ms, but projects a slightly different look and feel with its occasional serif bits, moving it away from a 1920s look. Hypatia has a distinctive cap W that can be used as a design element in itself, or perhaps it’s too much W and won’t work for your project. Keep in mind that individual letterforms can be a deciding factor when shopping for a sans.

The font called Today Sans (Volker Küster, available at MyFonts.com) also has a few unexpected serify bits, but one element that creates its distinctive look on the page is the angles of the terminals (the ends of the letterforms). Notice how many of the terminals below are not perfectly horizontal or vertical as they are in most other sans fonts.

Stone Sans (designed by Sumner Stone; available at Veer.com or MyFonts.com) also uses odd angles on the terminals, while the classic Rotis Sans (the last type design by Otl Aicher; available at Veer.com or MyFonts.com) has rounded forms (note the lowercase b, for instance) and is slightly condensed so you can fit more characters in the space allotted.

Sometimes we decide between purchasing similar sans serif designs based on the number of weights and italics in its family. We love Brandon Grotesque (designed by Hannes von Döhren; available at MyFonts.com) not only because it is crisp and modern with a slightly retro look, but we also appreciate the number of members in the font family (twelve) that enable us to use one font for an entire project. Its slightly rounded terminals soften its look and might be a deciding factor when considering a purchase.

Gotham, from Hoefler & Frere-Jones (typography.com), has a huge range of possibilities (65 versions, which you can buy individually as suits your need) so you can use one font for headlines, another for text, another for captions, one for posters, one for personal invitations. Mix and match to your heart’s content, always assured that your fonts work together beautifully.

The one sans serif that we NEVER use nor allow anyone working for us nor any of our students to use is Gill Sans, even though it is installed on all computers. This is not because it is a bad typeface—it is singularly beautiful. But Eric Gill was a reprehensible human being (an incestuous pedophile, as recorded in his own diaries) and we cannot promote using his fonts in any way.

If you’ve installed Microsoft Office, you’ve got some new sans serif fonts especially designed for the screen such as Calibri, a sturdy face that shows up well on the screen and even includes oldstyle numbers (and thank goodness the defaults in the newest versions of PowerPoint do not subject you to Arial!).

With many thousands of sans serifs to choose from, there is really no excuse to use Helvetica/Arial. So carry on and be brave! Expand your sans serif horizons!