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Well, I'd agree with the "Helvetica is the poor man's Univers" comment. Univers is perhaps the most unforgiving typeface in the world. If you can use Univers in a layout and make it look good, then you really have 'arrived' as a fully-fledged typographer.

Or, to put it another way, it sorts the men from the boys.

(By the way, if he only works in black and white, what are the green, grey and yellow - and a graduated tint - doing in that picture top left?)


I use Univers for work we do for Habitat for Humanity (one of their corporate fonts) but would much rather use Frutiger. I think it's more "human". Perhaps I'm just a typo-teenager.

Perhaps he has a man to do colour for him (actually, Neill's just told me that they didn't do that literature, it's just their type in action).


I've just tracked Univers to -9. It looks great.

David Marshall

It's great to hear that our exhibition has gone down so well - it's a shame the entire staff couldn't be there at the opening, but apparently we have to work.

While our work is very rarely done in colour, it's always interesting to see how the client uses a font once we've delivered it.

And to defend poor Vinnie from the attacks on Comic Sans, it was a font created for a very specific purpose. It's not his fault that it's over-used and mis-used left, right and centre. :)


Hi David,

Of course you're absolutely right, we shouldn't blame him. And I do apologise for using the "S" word. I think it was a little harsh.

David Marshall

When it comes to the Helvetica v Univers question, Helvetica is always a safe choice. A font with absolutely no personality, tone, style or message can't possible be *wrong* in any context, after all.

Univers is less forgiving, but at least it says *something*. Whether that's the right something or not will depend on the message you're trying to convey: Frutiger is friendly and accessible; Univers is a little more formal, a little more stand-offish, but speaks with authority.

So yes, I too would expect Habitat for Humanity to be using a humanist font as well... But apparently not. :)

Bruno Maag

Never thought that I would cause such a stir. You folks are dedicated! I am glad to hear, though, that the exhibition is liked and that I managed to stir some people into debating Univers v Helvetica.

In my opinion Univers is about as perfect a typeface as it can get. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it from the perspective of a type designer. As a type user you may find it hard to work with because it demands absolute discipline. Why Helvetica is so popular really is beyond me. I guess a lot has to do with the fact that it's available everywhere and that it supposedly exudes an air of Swiss typography. Funny that, though, as Helvetica was designed by a German (Max Miedinger) and Univers by a Swiss (Adrian Frutiger).

Historically, from what I know, Univers was first. It was released by Deberny & Peignot in 1956 (I believe) and Helvetica came out a year later to cash in on Univers success. And looking at it makes you think that it was a rush job. The character forms are no-where near as refined and all in all it looks clunky compared to Univers. Interestingly enough, I find that it's English speaking designers who prefer the rough and ready of Helvetica. In Switzerland, designers often use Univers.

Comic Sans - I think that as a typeface it is actually good. It's well designed and it performs. Just because it is a script style font does not make it bad. Comic Sans was never supposed to end up in Windows operating systems. Vinnie would be able to give a clearer account of this situation, though. Comic Sans irks many designers. I think much of it has to do with the fact that graphic designers find it hard to cope with shapes that are organic and do not fit on any grid system. Which, again, is why we see so much use of very structured Sans Serif fonts. You should hear the howls of agony when I suggest a soft, traditional, humanist Serif font that would acutally fit the job perfectly.

Bruno Maag


Well, I see (from the Dalton Maag website http://www.daltonmaag.com/about/our_people.html) that Vinnie designed Comic Sans when he worked for Microsoft. So we'll blame it on Bill Gates, shall we?


Big thanks to Bruno and David for probably the best comments ever!

Bruno, personally I think designers love to hate Comic Sans because: a) it's easy to not like a font that has limited use (remember all those Letraset fonts like Shatter or Arnold Böcklin, or Roger Excoffon's fonts - which I have a real soft spot for), and b) there is, of course, a unity in mutual dislike (although I guess that can have a sinister undercurrent). Fontism! I guess the real problem lies in the misuse of Comic Sans rather than any inherant evil. Anyway, I'm sure more eloquent people than me have debated this one so I won't go on about it.

Many, many thanks to both of you for your contribution and for that mattter, for coming to Belfast. Wish I'd been there but will get along to the exhibition.


If this is going to turn into a big debate about the relative merits of Helvetica and Univers I'd like to stick a spanner in the works by suggesting that Standard is better than both!


Upon reflection, shouldn't that be better than either?

David Marshall

Having admitted that Berthold Standard wasn't a typeface I was overly familiar with previously, it does strike me as a bit of an oddity.

It has the shapes, strokes and letterforms of Helvetica, but with the incredibly short descenders that we'd usually only see on the cut of a font specifically for phototypesetting equipment.

I can see why you'd prefer it to Helvetica in some ways, but it may as well be Helvetica in so many others. I still prefer Univers. I'm sure Bruno can suggest a dozen other grotesk and neo-grotesk sans fonts that he prefers to Helvetica. :)


OK, I'll admit it - I love Univers. I was just stirring things up (as is my way*) by suggesting Standard - it's good, but only for headings, not text setting.

*I forgot the Swiss don't have a sense of humour.


Hope I'm not going to have to intervene here kids. The rule for trouble makers is one minute on the naughty step for every year of your life. That includes you David.


OK - that'll be a long wait then. Can I have a glass of something to take with me?

Seriously though, this has been a tremendous exchange - thanks Richard (and sincere apologies to David and Bruno for any - unintended - offence). I respect the Swiss really, especially the ones that design (and I've even shaken hands with Josef Müller-Brockman - shows how old I am).

David Marshall

I wasn't offended, but then I'm not Swiss... :)

I'm just very happy that people still get angry and excited about type and typography.


Hello Bruno! (We at The Design Conspiracy love Bruno).

Nice to see you on this excellent blog. Can't agree with you about Comic Sans though. Bloody hell.


Of course, I think everyone is skirting around the real issue here which is: How is Jodie going to meet that bloke she fancies?

By the way, I still prefer Helvetica:

Actually, if you're still there Bruno, I know I wasn't at the event and only got the sketchiest of reports but regarding the "never minus track" comment: did you mean never reduce the inter-character spacing or that there is a better way of doing it than minus tracking? (Through H&J settings?). Don't some fonts need a little tightening up sometimes?

David Marshall

I'm sure Bruno will respond more fully tomorrow, but I'll chip in my 2p for now.

A font designer will spend an enormous length of time very carefully spacing and kerning a font to achieve maximum legibility and a good visual rhythm of stem and counter.

And tracking blows all that out of the water by moving every pair of characters closer together by the same arbitrary amount.*

Tracking completely destroys the rhythm, and has a surprisingly disproportionate effect on legibility.

In short, the font designer knew what they were doing, or at least should've known what they were doing. If your font is misspaced, it's faulty, and you should complain, not resort to the nasty hack of tracking. If your font isn't misspaced, then don't fiddle with the spacing - you'll break it.

Of course now we get on to the problem that optimal spacing for text work is not necessarily optimal spacing for display work... Not that tracking can fix that.

* I should be clear that I'm not talking about adjusting the tracking between a pair of characters - effectively manual kerning - I'm talking about whole words, lines, paragraphs, or, heaven forbid, pages.


What could Bruno possibly add? Thanks very much David, this just makes me wish I'd been at the event even more. I'd consider myself (rightly or wrongly) reasonably well read on this kind of thing but could you recommend "further reading"?

Also, can I just clarify that when I mentioned earlier that I tracked Univers to -9 it was for display purposes and was just a starting point before manually kerning between pairs.

I really do appreciate the time you've spent commenting today (actually, it's yesterday now). Did you get any real work done?

Bruno Maag

Well then, spacing; David said most things that needed to be said. Like David I'd like to stress that my 'no minus tracking' rule goes for text sizes. At display, around 20pt above, you will have to adjust spacing otherwise your typography starts falling apart. At text sizes however you have to remember that the tighter you space (minus tracking) the darker the page becomes. That, then, leads to critical situation becoming even more highlighted and you'll have to go in and fix those with a kern pair value. Huge amounts of work.

So, if you keep things loose, you won't have to do all this because it won't show up so much. This whole minus tracking stuff really is a horrible habit by designers and is fashion driven.

Fonts from reputable designers and foundries are by and large well spaced and need minimal or no interference. Also, if you find a font that has over 5000 kern pairs that will indicate that the font is poorly spaced in the first place. Kern pairs are here to fix critical situations such as 'TA' or 'Fa'. This may not be such an issue if the fonts are used within a professional design environment. But if the fonts are used within an Office environment it falls flat because many Office apps do not recognise kerning.

So, again, at text sizes leave it. It's good as it is.


Many thanks Bruno, both for the information and your time. It's been enlightening. Have a great weekend.

(But if you or David do think of any good further reading, please let me know).

David Marshall

You know, I don't know of any books that properly cover the reasoning and practicalities of font use. There's so much stuff that I pick up in day-to-day chat, research and support that isn't available in a single book. Perhaps Dalton Maag should write one... :)


It all sounds like vital stuff to me and without wanting to sound pompous I think you'd be doing the industry a service.

I've read material by Anthony Froshaug about the intricacies of letterspacing that's quite technical and fascinating. But because it's pre-Mac it's not as accessible and understandable to today's designers as perhaps it should be. Whether we like it or not, most of us use and understand Mac.

Rob Sawkins

More or less air?

Most faces I would say need more air at text sizes that you get 'out of the box' – say when setting a text for a comfortable read in average conditions (15 words max to the line, even-word space setting, off-white paper – not the blinding white photocopy paper that is sadly the default in many print applications) with a generous linefeed etc. No need to go into too much detail about micro typography here in such company ;o)

However, for what it's worth, there are faces which are perfectly adequate for comfortable reading that when used at text sizes, in IMHO, need minus tracking. Not much I hasten to add. Just the width of fag paper.

Off the top of a gaggle of type heads they include: Concorde, Unit, Strada, Amplitude.

Granted Concorde might seem the odd-one-out in this 'Friday evening drinking wine/real ale Skype survey', and of course I'm not talking about 6pt, but text setting you would happily read for sustained periods of time. And I'm not talking many units. They do none-the-less, benefit from a slight tightening of the waistband.

Helvetica. Mmm . . .

Not sure I can add much than it has it's uses (how condescending am I having never attempted a typeface design?), but it's not the first in mind when reaching into the typographic quiver when in search of something with soul (whatever that is).

But then you can say the same of Univers surely? Designed originally as one-size fits all production (though the newer cut is more human) is still isn't friendly. But then who needs friends at an airport, when clear directions are more often the priority over a hug and a shoulder to sleep on?

Leaning back to the bookshelf behind me, I find that Leo Maggs on Univers in 'Types best forgotten/best remembered' puts it thus:

'Block letters, lacking thick and thin strokes, really do need those variations of proportion which endow each letter with its recognizable form and character. Without them they become camouflaged . . . not only is the elegance and beauty of the printed page dulled, but the whole process and pleasure of reading is impaired.'

Does anyone else think that the older you get, the more space you are inclined to flow through your text? Something about being less uptight? Or maybe one wants to match the colour of one's greying hair? Perhaps that's just me . . .

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