Hell-vetica

Are you overusing stale, over-familiar fonts and, as a result, ruining your chances of success? Why not seek out something original, says Jason Arber.

I've worked at several studios that published a list of banned fonts - typefaces that common sense and decency deemed too awful to contemplate, yet alone use. Each time we came across another example of typographic insanity we'd add it to the list, just for fun.

Top of that list was Comic Sans, designed by Vincent Connare in 1995. Originally designed as a speech balloon font for Microsoft 3D Movie Maker, it's been shipped with Windows for the last decade, allowing people who really should know better to use it willy-nilly on menus, wedding invitations and websites.

Feelings about Comic Sans run so high among aesthetes that there is now a website dedicated to ridding the planet of it, called Ban Comic Sans - "Putting the Sans in Comic Sans". To be fair, Comic Sans isn't an awful typeface, it's just been used far too much in too many inappropriate situations.

Many other typefaces have suffered a similar fate. Consider Times New Roman, a superb serif typeface created for The Times newspaper by Victor Lardent from sketches by Stanley Morrison at Monotype in 1931. It became the default typeface on early computers and subsequently the face of the DTP revolution in the late eighties and early nineties. As such, I can barely look at the font family now without feeling a shudder right down my spine.

Sadly, Helvetica Neue is another font looking over the precipice of over-familiarity, thanks to the laziness of designers and the current trend for conservative designs and clean typography. This was brought home to me when one of my clients recently submitted their new corporate makeover using it as their principle typeface.

Helvetica Neue is a beautiful, elegant sans serif font family that unifies and expands the various Helveticas in existence into 51 different weights. The original Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger in 1957 for the Haas’sche Schriftgieerei type foundry in Switzerland (the font's name is derived from the Roman name for Switzerland).

The font was based loosely on the much earlier Akzidenz Grotesk (1898) and is very similar to Adrian Frutiger's slightly more clinical Grotesk typeface Univers, designed a year earlier. Helvetica is associated with what became known as the "Swiss Style" of design, renowned for its elegant simplicity.

Like Times, Helvetica has shipped with Macs since the DTP revolution and has appeared on the Windows operating system under the name Arial. Because of this ubiquity, and the influence of the Swiss design style, Helvetica is often one of the first typefaces that designers reach for when a clean look is required.

A recent trip to a typical British high street confirmed this. It's currently the typeface for mobile phone network Orange and YO! Sushi, Boots and Hennes and Mauritz use it for their in-store signage and price tags. Even Marks and Spencers, which had until recently been using a derivative of Optima, is now swinging towards Helvetica Neue.

There is obviously more to corporate identity than typeface alone, but seeing Helvetica everywhere is leading to dull uniformity. There are thousands of sans serif typefaces and hundreds of Grotesk and Neo- Grotesk fonts in existence that could replace it. Top Shop, for example, has done a superb job using Tobias Frere-Jones' Interstate for its recent corporate overhaul. But it could have considered Frutiger, Trade Gothic, Apex Sans, Klavika or any of the dozens of other exciting typefaces being made available.

Come on, designers -don't let that font menu limit the typographic choices you make€¦ Be bold, be inventive!