For my BA Graphic Design dissertation, I decided to write about Helvetica and Comic Sans. Helvetica is one of the most loved typefaces in the world especially with its use with Swiss Style designs, but it also has negative criticism with it too and I wanted to discover the reasons why some people don’t like it. With Comic Sans people have been told persistently to dislike it and understandably so, but I have never understood why it is still used if everyone hates it, so I wanted to research the questions, why was it created and are there any benefits with it. As most people admire Helvetica and detest Comic Sans, this report will identify not only the common knowledge of the two typefaces but reveal the advantages and disadvantages of each typeface.
You can view my visual reference on my Helvetica & Comic Sans Pinterest Board via the link below:
Arguably, it is believed that Helvetica is the most beloved sans serif typeface in the world and Comic Sans is the most hated. Helvetica was created fifty-seven years ago and is commended for its simplicity, bold appearance and neutrality, which have enabled it to be used with countless designs. It has overtaken the historical expression “When in doubt, use Caslon,” and has become the typeface that many designers use. Comic Sans has just ‘celebrated’ its 20th anniversary in 2014 and is the typeface that “everyone loves to hate”. Even Vincent Connare (the creator of Comic Sans), has only used it once and that was to write an angry letter to Sky Broadband.
HISTORY – HELVETICA
In the 1950s Eduard Hoffman (of the Haas Type Foundry in Müchenstein, Switzerland) wanted to create a sans serif typeface, which would modernise the 1896 typeface “Akzindenz Grotesk”. Hoffman decided to commission Max Miedinger to help form this new typeface that strived to be clear, neutral and have no determined meaning so that it would be used on a wide variety of signage. Many people only refer to Max Miedinger as the creator of Helvetica, but in truth it was a joint collaboration of Miedinger and Hoffman – neither could produce the typeface alone.
Miedinger was not satisfied with his initial drawings of the uppercase letters so notified Hoffman of a list of required improvements. Hoffman replied with his agreements, but also said “our first priority is the word ‘Hamburgers.’ It is the universal type-founders’ word that contains the variety of letters.” This meant they could shape the rest of the typeface from the characteristic in this word such as the x-height, ascenders, descenders, counters and terminals.
In 1956, Miedinger and Hoffman released the “Neue Haas Grotesk” typeface, which had a family of three variations; medium, semi-bold and bold, but did not have italics. Because of other typefaces such as Univers and Akzindenz Grotesk, the typeface was originally not popular in Switzerland, but in 1961 the Haas’ partner company (D Stempel AG Type Foundry) released it in Germany and renamed it “Helvetica” (meaning Swiss in Latin) to improve marketing across the globe. As technologies improved Linotype reworked Helvetica as there was more freedom designing digitally and in 1983 they released it with a large family of variations, including italics, calling it “Neue Helvetica”.
HISTORY – COMIC SANS
At the beginning of the 1990’s Microsoft were developing their new user-friendly interface “Microsoft Bob” for the Windows 95 computer when Vincent Connare observed an obscure specificity about it. In this program there was a dog called Rover who had speech bubbles to communicate with the users and the font choice was Times New Roman, which Connare thought was too serious and boring for this context. So Connare decided to create a typeface inspired by the handwritten letters of graphic novels such as “The Dark Knight Returns” and the “Watchmen” series and hence Comic Sans was born in 1994, although was not named at the time.
The font never made it into Microsoft Bob because it did not fit the existing grid, but was adopted by Microsoft Movie Maker, given its name and became a default font anyone could use on Windows 95. At the time people were only being introduced to the idea of selecting a typeface and using it on computers and because Comic Sans was a friendly, fun looking typeface people started using it for their emails, homemade posters, booklets, cards, and practically anything. The typeface began to be used continuously and then inappropriately and in 1999, Dave and Holly Combs decided to set up a website called “Ban Comic Sans” after being asked by an employer to use Comic Sans for a children museum exhibition. It targeted Comic Sans, but overall believed typeface should match the tone of the text.
There are many distinguishing characteristics that make Helvetica the success it is today, but for many people it is difficult to differentiate between it and its Microsoft clone, Arial. One of the simplest ways to distinguish it are the flat terminals (either cut vertically or horizontally); if compared to the Arial typeface, the difference can be seen because Arial’s terminals are diagonal. The flat terminals give Helvetica a crisp, neutral look as intended, so the letters fit perfectly alongside each other and everything clicks into position. Other ways to identify Helvetica are by its high x-height and the square dots for ‘i’, ‘j’ and punctuation marks, but looking at specific letters can help identify the typeface quickly. For example ‘t’ and ‘f’ are narrow, ‘R’ stands on a vertical curved leg, and ‘Q’ glyph has a straight cross bar. Unlike Helvetica and its variations/imitations, it is extremely easy to identify Comic Sans because it is so infamously unique for its inconsistency that it draws negative criticism when and wherever it is seen. It is a sans-serif handwriting typeface with rounded terminals and crooked letters; its lines are squint and consistently uneven. Its most iconic letters are the ‘C’ with its bold top terminal and the ‘e’ with its diagonal thick bar, large eye and counter.
A feature that both typefaces share are their unmodulated strokes; the thickness of strokes will stay the same throughout the letters unlike serif typefaces such as Garamond. Both have the same weight through their letters, but Helvetica manages its visual weight more appropriately than Comic Sans. Using the lowercase ‘n’ as an example it is visually heavy where the shoulder meets the stem for Comic Sans while Helvetica is more delicate and gets slightly thinner when it meets the stem.
During its original creation, Miedinger recommended that Helvetica should have narrow spacing. Hoffman agreed, as it made Helvetica visually beneficial for the large signage it was created for, but was bad for body text – Paul Rand told his students “Helvetica looks like dogshit in text”, and they should only use Helvetica as a display type. Comic Sans, on the other hand, has poor letter spacing whenever it is used furthermore emphasising its lack of structure and more reason for it to be disliked by most. It is especially problematic with the letters ‘t’ and ‘f’ as their long crossbars interfere with the spacing. This is almost impossible to fix by kerning because they can merge together, creating an ugly display.
THE TYPEFACES TODAY – HELVETICA
Most of Helvetica’s popularity came from the New Typographic Style (Swiss Style) design movement because Helvetica was close to being the only typeface used with its designs. The movement and typeface share much of the same characteristics – simplicity, objectivity, precision and clarity – so it was logical to unite them and Helvetica became an essential attribute of Swiss Style. It has been used by many famous designers like Josef Müller-Brookmann, Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Mike Parker; and has influenced many iconic logo designs such as American Airlines, Jeep, Microsoft and Panasonic. Helvetica has become a part of our day-to-day lives through shop signs, formal notices and on Twitter where Neue Helvetica was replaced by Gotham a few months ago, but was brought back due to popular demand. In 2007 to celebrate it’s 50th anniversary, Gary Hustwit created a documentary called “Helvetica” explaining the history and famous designers’ opinions about the popular typeface such as Neville Brody, Mike Parker, Erik Spiekermann and David Carson.
Its neutral appearance has not only made it extremely popular, but has also made it a ‘safe choice’. Neville Brody said that “when people choose Helvetica they want to fit in and look normal”, and “it also says bland, unadventurous, unambitious.” Helvetica is not a unique typeface either; firstly because it was essentially a newer version of Akzindenz Grotesk when it released so had common links and secondly because there are many imitations of Helvetica – Swiss, Helious, Nimbus; Arial being the most popular substitute.
Helvetica is not the typeface people should depend upon to fix designs and this misconception has seen it being misused many times. Any typeface should be chosen or created carefully for the needs of a design but with Helvetica, it can be a neutral part or can also be the focal point of a design depending on the context of its use.
THE TYPEFACES TODAY – COMIC SANS
Comic Sans often appears on publications such as posters, leaflets and cards used by people who know little about typefaces and how they can affect context. Inevitably people started to use it inappropriately and unintentionally; for example using it for warning signs, shop signage, writing on gravestones (even Helvetica has hardly ever been used for gravestones because of the conventional serif typefaces) and formal letters; the most famous being Dan Gilbert’s public letter in 2010 regarding LeBron James’ departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was never Comic Sans’ purpose to be used in this way. It was originally created as a display typeface for aliased computers – anti-aliasing technology makes fonts look smooth on computer screens; without it fonts are pixelated. Looking at the design of the letter ‘e’, it is actually of benefit to aliased computers in terms of readability compared to typefaces such as Garamond. The eye of the Garamond ‘e’ turns into a black blotch whereas the Comic Sans ‘e’ stand out and is easily recognised. It’s the same with the ‘t’ and ‘f’; with the longer crossbars and space, they don’t merge with the other letters and enhance the readability on an aliased screen.
Besides its initial purpose, Comic Sans has been commended for its use by those who work with dyslexic children because of its letter spacing, tall bold ascenders/descenders and letters such as ‘a’, ‘e’, and ‘m’ are easily recognised; its only disadvantage are its mirrored ‘b’ and ‘d’. It is one of the major advantages of Comic Sans often unknown/neglected by many designers because they think more about the form of typefaces than their actual functionality.
In the last year, during its 20th anniversary, Comic Sans has been put to better use. Firstly, a designer called Craig Rozynski took it upon himself to create an upgraded version of Comic Sans which was more professional and sophisticated. He released the typeface in June 2014 calling it “Comic Neue”; it supports forty languages, has straight thin strokes with rounded terminals and aims to be accepted by everyone including professional designers. Only time will tell if it will be fully accepted into society. Its second use in the last year was during an exhibition in London called “Comic Sans for Cancer” in August 2014. It hosted five hundred artists/designers from thirty-eight countries who created Comic Sans themed posters with proceeds going to Cancer Research UK. As well as it being twenty years old, the reason for this exhibition is because the typeface has become retro and one of the things we think about when referring to the 90s.
Helvetica and Comic Sans are equally famous. As with all typefaces, both of these had specific purposes originally and should have been chosen wisely and appropriately for designs, but they ended up being exploited due to overuse and misuse.
In conclusion it is an obvious fact that Helvetica is considerably more successful than Comic Sans – it has better structure, its neutral appearance is widely used and it is a fundamental element of the Swiss Style design movement. However Helvetica, as said before, was not born a success; it was unpopular in Switzerland to begin with because of its similarity to other typefaces and later it had to be redesigned to work digitally. Even in the present day people refrain from using it because it has been overused, it is a safe choice, it can be boring and there are more imitations of it being used frequently too. Comic Sans (even with its uneven lines, clumsy structure which is hated by most designers) is a unique typeface that most people immediately recognise. It has its advantages too such as helping with dyslexia and has become a retro typeface. Comic Neue could be the turning point for Comic Sans where people start to appreciate the characteristics and quality in this more sophisticated typeface. It is hard to tell how well it has been received presently since it has only been available for use in the last few months. People may accept it or may discard it – or maybe they will just choose Helvetica.