running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

4 X Sans Serif

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Despite an abundance of modern options, there remains a very select group of sans serif typefaces that designers prefer to work with. There are more than a handful of contenders, but many designers would probably name just four.

Three of these - Akzidenz, Helvetica and Univers, are closely related and have been with us for many years. All have undergone refinements and facelifts during that time and are still widely used. The fourth, Avenir, is a relative newcomer which has a different provence to the grotesks and has established itself as a classic.

4 X Sans Serif, all set at 50pt Bold with optical kerning.

Each typeface has a unique personality, based on its inherent characteristics, but it can be problematic telling them apart and, more crucially, difficult to figure out which one suits what job.

Akzidenz, created way back in 1896 by the Berthold AG type foundry, is the progenitor of all modern sans serifs. During the 1950's and 1960's, many of the Swiss designers worked almost exclusively with Akzidenz, establishing its reputation.

Akzidenz Std Medium
Akzidenz Standard Medium (65)

A modest x-height provides rounded counters and bowls, and the lowercase 'e' has an angled cutoff at the end. Akzidenz can look powerful, but it has a slightly clumsy, anachronistic feel to it, and its use in commercial advertising has diminished. It remains popular with purists, and still looks awesome in its traditional visual environment - flush left, ragged right and tightly kerned.

The definitive sans serif, Helvetica was developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger at the Haas Foundry in Switzerland and was designed to compete with the ageing Akzidenz-Grotesk.

Helvetica Std Medium
Helvetica Standard Medium (65)

Originally called 'Neue Haas Grotesk', this is a neutral design that has a universal, objective clarity, making it ideal to deliver all sorts of clear messages.

In antiquity, the Romans referred to the tribes in what is now Switzerland as 'Helvetii', and in 1960 the name was changed to 'Helvetica', which helped commercialise its use in the burgeoning American market.

Helvetica is the most famous typeface in the world, and we see it on everything from government forms to toilet instructions, exhibition posters, street signage, web pages, and luxury car adverts.

Helvetica's meaty x-height gives it a more imposing appearance than Akzidenz, and its trademark horizontal cutoff ends on the 'c' and 'e' give the typeface a solidity and gravitas that is difficult to beat across a range of weights. Helvetica retains the arrowed end to the uppercase 'G' from Akzidenz, but the regular proportions have given Helvetica a reputation for blandness. Helvetica is in fact vociferously avoided by many important designers.

Univers, (pronounced 'univar'), was designed in 1957 by Adrian Frutiger as a direct competitor to Neue Haas Grotesk.

Univers Std Medium
Univers Standard Medium (65)

Univers comes in uniquely numbered weight, width, position combinations. It retains some aspects of Akzidenz, and shares many of Helvetica's attributes, for example, a flourished end on the uppercase 'R'. Some basic differences include a distinct angled chink in the lowercase 't' and the loss of the arrowed end on the uppercase 'G'.

Univers has more stroke modulation than Helvetica, and this gives it a slick classy feel which is particularly good for headings and body text. It also pairs up well with a wide range of serif typefaces providing a great mix.

Some aspects of Univers were lifted by Microsoft when they commissioned the web's most legible typeface, Arial. Arial is normally considered a poor copy of Helvetica, but if you look closely, it actually bears all sorts of similarities with Univers, as the image below shows (Arial in the grey box)-

Arial v Univers

Avenir, also designed by Adrian Frutiger, is related to an earlier geometric sans-serif typeface, Futura (1927), and is an altogether more symmetrical typeface than the other three. It features the circular shapes of Akzidenz, the consistency of Helvetica and the refinement of Univers, which is why it is considered by many to be the most complete sans serif typeface currently in use.

Avenir Std Medium
Avenir Standard Medium (65)

Avenir sports neat angled ends on the 'e'. 'c' and 's', a round period dot, and great symmetry in the counters and bowls, providing a really contemporary and fluid feel to the reading experience.

Avenir is the house font for Reuters, Chanel, Japan Airlines, Wired Magazine and Empire Magazine, to name just a few. It is the official typeface used in all promotional material for the city of Amsterdam in Holland, and BBC Two has also begun to use Avenir as its main font, in a radical break from the Corporation's long-term use of Gill Sans.

Avenir manages to retain the idealism of the modernist typefaces whilst at the same time looking fresh, unforced and fantastically legible. Its dead give-away is the pair of angled cutoffs to a very geometric and beautifully balanced 'C'. As a headline font in bold weights it is legible, focussed and clean.

It does have weaknesses however. It tends to have an intrinsic high-brow feel to it, and at smaller point sizes the roundness can reduce legibility. These drawbacks make it unsuitable for some jobs, notably body text.

Frutiger and Linotype’s Type Director Akira Kobayashi have recently completed Avenir Next, which addresses these issues, and expands and refines the original by offering a re-balanced set of 6 weights, in addition to condensed companions for each weight and style.

So where does this leave designers when it comes to choosing from the 4 X sans serifs? A general rule of thumb does emerge, which can produce very good results -

Akzidenz: organic, retro, solid, traditional modernist
Helvetica : broad appeal, clarity, corporate authenticity, reliability.
Univers : rationality, technical print, formal, serious, clean.
Avenir : elegant, contemporary communication with a hint of sophistication.