A blog post about popular fonts

Thanks to Pocket for inspiring this typographical rabbit hole.

The Tragicomedy of Digital Fonts by Frank Adebiaye

A piece on the rises, falls, mockeries, and triumphs of a range of fonts and their foundries including:

Monotype’s history is particularly interesting:

Monotype was saved from bankruptcy by making Arial for Microsoft, preventing the latter from paying huge royalties for Helvetica, then a Linotype asset. Linotype was eventually acquired by Monotype in 2006, so both Arial and Helvetica are Monotype assets now. But Arial and Helvetica are not the same typeface, Arial seems to be a kind of displacement of Helvetica, sharing mostly the same metrics but borrowing its shape from something much older[3]. (sic)

The fall and rise of Roboto

As mentioned in Frank Adebiaye’s article, Roboto was created by type critic and type curator Stephen Coles in 2011. It was initially regarded as a rip-off of Helvetica, DIN, and Univers so Google revamped the font 3 years later:

In response to the initial criticism, Robertson declared Roboto a “work-in-progress”, and went back to the drawing board. With the release of Android 5.0 Lollipop, Google introduced its new design language named Material Design, which would grow to become synonymous with all sorts of GUIs on Android. Part of this big overhaul was a typeface that was accessible and geometric while being able to convey a lot of information in a little space, and a completely reinvented Roboto played the role.

The changes were significant and it’s now used by billions of people who own Android devices.

Goodbye, Calibri

In April this year, Microsoft announced Calibri’s retirement after 15 years of typography service. It was a maligned font but it had a unique place in South Asian political history as it allegedly helped to expose corruption in Pakistan:

The Express Tribune says that Pakistan’s court-appointed investigators sent the documents off to a lab for examination. The lab noticed the discrepancy, with one of its experts saying that since “Calibri was not commercially available before 31st January 2007 … neither of the originals of the certified declarations is correctly dated and happy [sic] to have been created at some later point in time.”

There is still some complication here. Calibri was in existence before then, just in a very limited means. Sharif, who has said she rejects the report’s findings, has retweeted a screenshot of a Quora page saying that Calibri had been available in a Windows beta as early as 2004. It’s not clear that date is accurate, but Calibri does appear to have been available in some limited form at the time her documents are alleged to have been created.

Dawn asked the design company that created Calibri about the timeline. The company said that Calibri was delivered to Microsoft in finished form in 2004 and that the first public betas to include it were released in 2006. “We do not know the exact date for this public release date [but] it is [still] extremely unlikely that somebody would copy fonts from a beta environment to use in official documents,” said a representative for LucasFonts.

How IBM moved away from Helvetica

IBM created its own font—IBM Plex—in 2017 after decades of using Helvetica. The article’s author Anne Quito described the use of Helvetica as a “cold, modernist cliché”:

IBM has been spending over a million dollars every year to use Helvetica. What changed?

The opportunity came when graphic designer Mike Abbink joined IBM in 2015. With stints at brand strategy firms Wolff Olins and MetaDesign, where he worked for the renowned typographer Erik Spiekermann, Abbink developed an acuity for translating a company’s values into letterforms. He designed the uplifting Inspira typeface for GE and the lively NBCU Rock for NBC Universal.

“When I came to IBM, it was a big discussion: Why doesn’t IBM have a bespoke typeface? Why are we still clinging to Helvetica?…Helvetica was a child from a particular set of modernist thinking that’s gone today,” explains Abbink in an internal video. Helvetica was right for the IBM of the 1960s, when the company wanted to change its image as a maker of meat grinders and cheese slicers to one as a producer of advanced business machines.

IBM’s business has since changed again. From selling PCs and computer hardware, the $162 billion company has gone to making most of its revenue today from enterprise software for companies and governments around the world. Its marquee AI project, IBM Watson is, at its core, a multi-faceted meditation about the relationship between humans and machines.

I found it ironic that the original title for the article was “IBM has freed itself from the tyranny of Helvetica” given IBM’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II (a hidden in plain sight discovery I only made a few weeks ago).

Massimo Vignelli and Matej Latin say you only need 5 fonts

Vignelli once said that our growing collection of fonts represented “a new level of visual pollution threatening our culture. Out of thousands of typefaces, all we need are a few basic ones and trash the rest”. Of those few, he selected 5:

As for Matej Latin, his 5 were:

He then left a template for anyone to pick their 5 using “a geometric sans serif, a high quality serif for long text, a workhorse font, a web safe font, a variable font”:

If you take a closer look, you’ll notice that this list of types of fonts aligns perfectly with my own “5 fonts” list. Gilroy is a geometric sans serif font that I really like because it feels modern (unlike Futura which may look dated in some occasions). Meta is my high quality serif font because it’s really well designed, it works really well for paragraphs and has many OpenType features like ligatures, alternative digit styles and much more.

Roboto is a typical workhorse font family. It comes in many different styles and weights and is very well designed. It consists of a sans serif, a slab serif and a mono style and can be used for anything from long paragraphs to UI labels and code snippets.

Work Sans is a variable sans serif font that I really like. It’s highly legible, even at smaller sizes which makes it great for UI design. The fact that it’s variable means that I can match various weights to get a good balance between font sizes which helps my UI designs look slicker.

And the last is Georgia, an underrated web safe font. It looks quite modern which is fascinating, because it was designed a while ago. It comes with old style figures, often called “lowercase digits.” That makes it great for paragraphs, especially when I need to save a few kilobytes. I have been saying this for a while, web safe fonts don’t suck. They’re completely free as we don’t need to pay to use them and they also don’t add any weight to our websites so they load faster. More on web safe fonts another time.

My 5 essential fonts are:

That list isn’t laminated but it covers most of my favourite fonts that I use the most. Gibson is the main heading font for Sampleface (my music blog) and I use it as the main font in one of my favourite games, Championship Manager 01/02. Helvetica is Helvetica and while it’s overused elsewhere, I like to use it in certain situations and as body text when I can. Cooper Black is iconic and great for titles when you need a bit of versatile flair. Georgia is a great web safe font and alternative to using sans-serif fonts. Finally, I picked Univers because I like its print heritage and its form and I’ve used an alternative version called Fluxisch Else for many album covers over the years to emulate that scruffy printed feel.

10 alternatives to Helvetica

Helvetica weights

Helvetica has been everywhere for decades. But it’s not free (or original) so you might want a different take on the classic sans serif. Extensis compiled a list of the 10 best Helvetica alternatives.

Most of these I’ve used or otherwise own but a few I’d not seen before, including:

Theinhardt is my #1 from the list. What’s yours? Let me know in the comments.