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Helveticise your web experience
September 15, 2009 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Love Helvetica and modernist typographic design? Seen the film? Now, with the power of browser userscripts, you can have the 20th-century high-modernist experience in your favourite web applications. Scripts exist to Helveticise Gmail, Twitter and Google Reader, and work with a variety of modern browsers.

Of course, you'll need to provide your own copy of Helvetica; Arial is not quite the same.
posted by acb (69 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Comic Sans should be good enough for anybody.

Don't kill me!
posted by entropicamericana at 3:29 PM on September 15, 2009


You know, your browser is very probably fully capable of "Helveticising" the whole internet all by itself, assuming you have the font installed.

I wouldn't bother, though. It makes for a rather terrible screen font.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:30 PM on September 15, 2009




I loved Helvetica the film, but do wish it hadn't become the hipster's font of choice (and jesus do I ever wish Gruber would stop going on about it on the iPhone like it's the second coming of typography). It's overexposed and really a bit, well, dull.

The state of the art has really moved on in sans serifs, and there are far more beautiful fonts, especially for the screen. The Helvetica thing feels a little bit like everybody's suddenly going on about a 1964 Cadillac as the epitome of up-to-the-minute styling and deciding knowing about it is enough -- who cares about the complications of all those 2009 models?

But, churlishness aside, I do love the idea of userscripting better typography into sites like this. The tyranny of the big five web fonts is finally ending, so hopefully soon we'll see other alternatives and maybe, someday, perhaps, we'll even get serifs in (amazing how hard it is to get a decent serifed style for Wikipedia, but I did find one that looked absolutely gorgeous a few years back. Now defunct, sadly).
posted by fightorflight at 3:38 PM on September 15, 2009


That's great but I just checked Linotype's website and it's $179.00 to download Helvetica for my computer.
posted by octothorpe at 3:46 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hey, wow! I get to complain about Mad Men in two threads!
posted by Sys Rq at 3:48 PM on September 15, 2009


What about Corel's "Swiss" knock-off? Close or no cigar?
posted by GuyZero at 3:48 PM on September 15, 2009


That's great but I just checked Linotype's website and it's $179.00 to download Helvetica for my computer.

That is a rather big package. If you just want the four basic versions (Roman, Oblique, Bold and Bold Oblique), it'd cost you about 2/3 of that (it says £80.92 here).

Or you could buy a Mac, and get it preinstalled, like all the cool kids...
posted by acb at 4:13 PM on September 15, 2009


modernist typographic design

I read that as misogynist typographic design, and thought that perhaps you were being a bit hard on old Helvetica.
posted by BoatMeme at 4:15 PM on September 15, 2009


You missed Helvetical for your Google Calendar...
posted by wendell at 4:18 PM on September 15, 2009


What about Corel's "Swiss" knock-off? Close or no cigar?
An exploding cigar just for mentioning Corel, let alone the bastard "Swiss."

I've worked with type for over thirty years, and I still keep coming back to Helvetica. There's simply a flexibility about it that lets it work in so many different situations. You can't really say that about the contemporary sans-serif fonts. They are all good workers, don't get me wrong, and have their perfect applications. But they all seem to have too much personality to be truly flexible in the way Helvetica is. They try too hard sometimes. They announce their presence in a way Helvetica simply does not. I guess it's the difference between the latest runway fashion and the classic little black dress.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:27 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


yeah, i remember the day when the helvetica wheel was my favorite to load up in my kroy machine ... as part of doing my graphics the old way with tape, zipatone and an exacto knife. now i just use it for the lettering on the sign in my yard--the one that says to get off my lawn.
posted by lester at 4:33 PM on September 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


IMPACT OR GO HOME FONT DORKS
posted by boo_radley at 4:38 PM on September 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


I Helveticised my Reader many months ago, and the only thing I don't like about it is the little "Hr" favicon that took me ages to get used to. I kept thinking I had a page from Adobe open, tab-whore that I am.
posted by wundermint at 4:50 PM on September 15, 2009


fightorflight: The state of the art has really moved on in sans serifs, and there are far more beautiful fonts, especially for the screen. The Helvetica thing feels a little bit like everybody's suddenly going on about a 1964 Cadillac as the epitome of up-to-the-minute styling and deciding knowing about it is enough -- who cares about the complications of all those 2009 models?

How can you say that, without saying "like these fine fonts: ______ " ?

Some of us like to pretend to know about things, and we count on people like you to tell us things, so we can repeat them later and sound cool smart and cultured. What am I supposed to say now? "Oh, Helvetica, well I guess that's Ok for the subway, but for my word processing I simply insist on…um…" and I'm lost!
posted by paisley henosis at 4:59 PM on September 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


IMPACT OR GO HOME FONT DORKS

You probably wouldn't want to know that I read that in Century Schoolbook.

Ooh, and it looks even better italicised.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:01 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm quite fond of Gill Sans, myself. Though it has become a bit overexposed (at least in the UK).
posted by acb at 5:05 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I must reluctantly admit I am a Helvetica snob. That being said, my font of choice was Trebuchet, but I had my business cards done in DejaVu Sans Condensed. I love the old classic Letter Gothic, but it sometimes does strange things.

A lot of my love for Helvetica comes from my antipathy towards Arial, and the "banality of evil" it represents.

Helvetica does look awful on screen though.
posted by Xoebe at 5:08 PM on September 15, 2009


Apparently, Verdana & Georgia are being updated.
posted by ijoshua at 5:10 PM on September 15, 2009


Sys Rq: "You probably wouldn't want to know that I read that in Century Schoolbook.

Ooh, and it looks even better italicised.
"

holy crap, you're right.
posted by boo_radley at 5:11 PM on September 15, 2009



A lot of my love for Helvetica comes from my antipathy towards Arial, and the "banality of evil" it represents.


Actually, this sounds much like the charges levelled against Helvetica back before it was rehabilitated (sometime after doing penance by being dismembered by "grunge typographers" in the 1990s). For a while from the late 60s onward, it was the typographical manifestation of The Man, of everything from multinational corporatism to imperialism. (One designer, interviewed in the eponymous documentary, calls it "the official typeface of the Vietnam War".)
posted by acb at 5:12 PM on September 15, 2009


Apparently, Verdana & Georgia are being updated.

Wonder how much IKEA had to do with this.
posted by acb at 5:13 PM on September 15, 2009


Helvetica is like, so last week man. I read everything in Wingdigs.
posted by ob at 5:21 PM on September 15, 2009


acb: "Or you could buy a Mac, and get it preinstalled, like all the cool kids..."

Wow, for only $1500, they throw in Hevetica for free?
posted by octothorpe at 5:33 PM on September 15, 2009


Spend $2000 on a Dell and all you get is Arial.
posted by GuyZero at 5:45 PM on September 15, 2009


Some of us like to pretend to know about things, and we count on people like you to tell us things, so we can repeat them later and sound cool smart and cultured.
:) :)

I usually recommend Scala Sans (especially the heavier weights) for general all-round use, but as someone else said, the problem is partly that a lot of the better modern fonts are also more specialised. So you get some that are cracking for display, but mush up nastily at smaller sizes.

If you want a tome to read more about all of this, and also to impress font snobs, I can't recommend The Elements of Typographic Style enough. It's not up-to-the-minute, but a good font takes a decade to bed in anyway. There are lots of flash-in-the-pan fonts (like TrueType Chicago in the late 1980s) that people decide are just the business but which in a year or two are the same as dressing your copy in flares.
posted by fightorflight at 5:50 PM on September 15, 2009


I like Helvetica's look. I hate reading big blocks of it. My Metafilter body font is Optima, and before that it was Lucida Grande. I find those two to be graceful and readable default fonts.

How can you say that, without saying "like these fine fonts: ______ " ?

I think most of the fonts fightorflight would recommend to you are in the the category of humanist sans serif fonts. Wikipedia describes it at least as well I can.
posted by invitapriore at 6:00 PM on September 15, 2009


Arr, look what not previewing gets me. And ten minutes after the fact!
posted by invitapriore at 6:00 PM on September 15, 2009


Uppercase Zapf Chancery 4-Life
posted by porn in the woods at 6:09 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was just looking thru all the fonts on Safari and I like optima too! I'm ashamed to admit it though, I don't know what fonts the cool kids like...
posted by R_Nebblesworth at 6:24 PM on September 15, 2009


Futura FTW.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:42 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


The moon, bitchez. The moon.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:44 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


are in the the category of humanist sans serif fonts.

Damn. I have never been categorized so neatly by terminology I've never heard of. I've been using fonts from that list for my presentations for years, fighting off the corporate template (Arial, of course)...
posted by Ella Fynoe at 6:52 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does google reader, calendar, et al support themes like the iGoogle home page?
posted by device55 at 6:57 PM on September 15, 2009


Spend $2000 on a Dell and all you get is Arial.

Hey! I spend all of $400 on my crap Acer Aspire, and I got OCR A STD, so suck it!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:04 PM on September 15, 2009


This whole thing keeps getting frutiger and frutiger.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:05 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter, I never stop loving your font threads.
posted by cavalier at 7:13 PM on September 15, 2009


I wanted to try out those GreaseMonkey scripts, so I grabbed the copy of Helvetica from my Mac, converted it to a .ttf that Windows can use (it's already Truetype but they store the data in the resource fork or something stupid like that) and installed it on my Windows machine.

My verdict: it looked awful! I was so disappointed. I think it looks good on the Mac, so I don't know what's up, but totally not worth it if you are thinking about it.
posted by smackfu at 7:40 PM on September 15, 2009


Okay so grousing about font nerds aside for a sec, I installed Helvetimail and it is kind of nice -- I've been looking for a minimal Gmail theme -- but it has big ugly gaps of whitespace that bug me, and all the red is a bit much. Also, Helvetireader does this annoying thing where you have to scroll a bit to make the top post in a feed become "active". I had hoped that these themes would be a bit more finished-feeling than they are.
posted by statolith at 7:40 PM on September 15, 2009


My verdict: it looked awful! I was so disappointed. I think it looks good on the Mac, so I don't know what's up, but totally not worth it if you are thinking about it.

It's true: Fonts (among other things) just look better on Macs. Always have. I don't know why, but Windows does this thing where a lot of fonts' kerning goes all cuckoo bananas and the bold (that is, the fake, forced, browser-style bold) gets a case of the blotchies.

What's up with that?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:57 PM on September 15, 2009


"The tyranny of the big five web fonts" - I would totally go see that movie!!!
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:06 PM on September 15, 2009


What's up with that?

The fonts are nice because Mac displays are basically showing one big, layered PDF file. It's a different rendering engine underneath, than what Windows uses.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:28 PM on September 15, 2009


Slack-a-gogo: ""The tyranny of the big five web fonts" - I would totally go see that movie!!!"

After the recent thread on Obama's birth certificate which ended in much joking about how the kerning was off on the official copy, I'm now convinced that I would love a documentary devoted to typographical conspiracy theorists. Preferably, it'd bring typeface to the front and center of every major conspiracy.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:29 PM on September 15, 2009


Sys Rq: "My verdict: it looked awful! I was so disappointed. I think it looks good on the Mac, so I don't know what's up, but totally not worth it if you are thinking about it.

It's true: Fonts (among other things) just look better on Macs. Always have. I don't know why, but Windows does this thing where a lot of fonts' kerning goes all cuckoo bananas and the bold (that is, the fake, forced, browser-style bold) gets a case of the blotchies.

What's up with that?
"

Here's a blog post that explains it briefly. Basically, Microsoft and Apple disagree on how they prioritize font rendering. Apple thinks accurate rendering of the typeface design is more important, while Microsoft thinks high contrast readability is more important. Apple's strategy can be blurry, but Microsoft's method can cause the problems you describe.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:38 PM on September 15, 2009


Cooper Black
posted by SPrintF at 8:45 PM on September 15, 2009


Thanks for all the suggestions, and especially thanks for letting me know how to move fronts off the Mac to a PC.

With my MeFiQuote Greasemonkey script, Gil Sans puts huge ugly Qs all over the place, but it came with the Dell, and it is a hell of a lot better than Veranda. On the iMac I've switched to Optima, for now, but it reminds me of Papyrus, a tiny bit, and that is bugging me. Nice lower-case gs though.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:49 PM on September 15, 2009


it is a hell of a lot better than Veranda

Verdana, actually. (I know, right? That's not even a word!)
posted by Sys Rq at 9:02 PM on September 15, 2009


Laugh all you want about Helvetica.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:09 PM on September 15, 2009


Ugh, the Helvetica controversy.

Has anybody figured out yet where the ridiculously high license fees people pay for Helvetica actually go? Something tells me it's not the scenic old typographical houses I always like to imagine.

Hey, by the way, a propos of nothing - check out this awesome site, Open Font Library. Hundreds of Open Source fonts that are free to use! And if you, say, really like Helvetica but don't like paying exorbitant license fees, then just [MAC & LINUX USERS] install the completely and absolutely free program FontForge or [PC USERS] Select 'Run' in the start menu (or press Window-R) and type in eudcedit.exe and press Enter to use the Windows Font Editor.

That way, you don't need Helvetica; you can make your own!

Seriously: in a hundred years arguing about Arial vs. Helvetica will seem like arguing about being a Whig or being Tory. Do the responsible thing: use a free font or design your own; don't pay for information that should be free.
posted by koeselitz at 9:57 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I almost forgot to mention:

Everybody should know that there's a font which comes free with OpenOffice (and which I should be able to find free on the internet, since it's been released under the Gnu Public License, but which I can't - damned font-licensing companies all want to charge me twenty bucks!) called Nimbus Sans L which is (as far as I can tell) pretty much identical to Helvetica, and which doesn't make the same mistakes Arial does. Just one more reason not to pay for a typeface.
posted by koeselitz at 10:16 PM on September 15, 2009


I've always liked Chicago, personally. Brings back memories of pre-OSX apple computers.
posted by hellojed at 12:30 AM on September 16, 2009


Uppercase Zapf Chancery 4-Life

I heard that that's the new all-caps Old English.
posted by acb at 1:28 AM on September 16, 2009


loves Helvetica. Arial is nice and can be ok. Sad that Helvetica is not in Office 07 for the PC.
posted by edmo at 1:35 AM on September 16, 2009


Do the responsible thing: use a free font or design your own

Except that fonts are notoriously difficult to design well, especially for setting passages of text. It's not just a matter of getting some shapes down; there's the spacing, the kerning, the optical weights and so on. Which is why the vast majority of the free fonts you find, and the off-brand knockoffs of commercial fonts you find on shovelware CD-ROMs, suck for any serious use. (By which I mean setting paragraphs, rather than putting a zany title on garage-sale flyers.) The ones which look good, meanwhile, have invariably been designed by someone with years of training and experience.

(And don't get me started on "design your own". It's the Penguinista equivalent of Randroid statements like "I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn't have to share it with other people"; glib and out of touch with the way things actually work.)
posted by acb at 1:36 AM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Bah. Seriously, bah.
posted by tehloki at 2:08 AM on September 16, 2009


GuyZero: "Spend $2000 on a Dell and all you get is Arial."

Right but I only spent $500 on my HP Laptop which also came with Arial. As soon as Apple comes out with a $500 laptop, I'm right there.
posted by octothorpe at 4:18 AM on September 16, 2009


Seriously: in a hundred years arguing about Arial vs. Helvetica will seem like arguing about being a Whig or being Tory. Do the responsible thing: use a free font or design your own; don't pay for information that should be free.

Responsible? how? "Should"? On what grounds?

Fonts are both art and incredibly difficult to do well; both traits that humans have traditionally paid well for. If some artists choose to give their work away that's laudable, but there's zero basis for saying they should have to.
posted by fightorflight at 4:20 AM on September 16, 2009


Fonts are both art and incredibly difficult to do well; both traits that humans have traditionally paid well for.

Those are also traits that humans have traditionally slipped under their coats and skulked out with, HINT HINT.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:01 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


acb: ... fonts are notoriously difficult to design well, especially for setting passages of text. It's not just a matter of getting some shapes down; there's the spacing, the kerning, the optical weights and so on. Which is why the vast majority of the free fonts you find, and the off-brand knockoffs of commercial fonts you find on shovelware CD-ROMs, suck for any serious use. (By which I mean setting paragraphs, rather than putting a zany title on garage-sale flyers.) The ones which look good, meanwhile, have invariably been designed by someone with years of training and experience.

Years of training and experience in founding physical typefaces and setting metal type, you apparently mean. How exactly do you think people are supposed to get years of experience now? Yes, it's very hard to make a good font; I know because I've tried, and I'll enjoy continuing to try. Have you tried? Why not?

And don't get me started on "design your own". It's the Penguinista equivalent of Randroid statements like "I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn't have to share it with other people"; glib and out of touch with the way things actually work.

Why not? My own sense is that there are a lot of people that might have excellent talent at designing typefaces; most of them will never get the chance to discover this or to work at something that's rewarding because there's a superstitious and silly aura of traditionalism surrounding fonts.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging creativity.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 AM on September 16, 2009


(And to be honest, if people had had this attitude in 1957, Helvetica would've been dismissed immediately as "too innovative" and said that Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann weren't "expert enough" to be designing their own typefaces.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:38 AM on September 16, 2009


fightorflight: Fonts are both art and incredibly difficult to do well; both traits that humans have traditionally paid well for. If some artists choose to give their work away that's laudable, but there's zero basis for saying they should have to.

Do you really thing that MT Corp represents the people who design fonts? You buy fonts from multinational conglomerates which aggregate the most lucrative typefaces and package them together, not from 'artists' who design the fonts themselves.

This isn't 1850. Paying for fonts has absolutely nothing to do with recompensing artists for their work.
posted by koeselitz at 10:42 AM on September 16, 2009


Helvetica would've been dismissed immediately as "too innovative"

Heh. It probably was. Who wants to use that newfangled Sans Serif? Times is good enough for the Times.
posted by smackfu at 11:28 AM on September 16, 2009


You buy fonts from multinational conglomerates which aggregate the most lucrative typefaces

Do l? /checks invoices.

Oh, no, turns out my last three purchases were from independent foundries, directly benefitting their creators. Even if they *were* from conglomerates, typographers still get paid in there, you know.

I mean, cling to the stick-it-to-the-man argument all you like, it served phone phreakers well, and is still serving but-I-buy-concert-tickets music pirates well now too. But because something is sometimes sold by the Man still doesn't mean its entire industry "should" be free, nor that the only reponsible thing to do is limit yourself to free fonts or designing for yourself.
posted by fightorflight at 11:58 AM on September 16, 2009


True. I guess my only point is: people shouldn't be afraid to try designing their own font just because they're not supposed to.
posted by koeselitz at 12:59 PM on September 16, 2009


And I'm not arguing that anybody should pirate typefaces; I only feel as though there are a lot of great open-license fonts out there worth using. Like Cambria.
posted by koeselitz at 1:01 PM on September 16, 2009


Yes, it's very hard to make a good font; I know because I've tried, and I'll enjoy continuing to try. Have you tried? Why not?

I have, actually. To show for it I have two geometric typefaces which are more or less good enough to be free downloads, and several dozen Fontographer files containing around 20 characters. I haven't touched Fontographer for many years, though (the last copy I used ran only on MacOS 9, and refused to start in Classic), my free time having been diverted to other pursuits since then.

Why not? My own sense is that there are a lot of people that might have excellent talent at designing typefaces; most of them will never get the chance to discover this or to work at something that's rewarding because there's a superstitious and silly aura of traditionalism surrounding fonts.

A lot of people have the potential for excellent talent at designing typefaces. That plus a lot of time devoted to experimentation and considerable study of other fonts and they could make fonts with the best of them. (And to make a font that looks readable for setting paragraphs would take serious proficiency.)

There is nothing wrong with encouraging creativity.

I never said there was. Though, on the other hand, pretending that anyone can sit down and come up with a perfectly good substitute for (insert name of well-known font here) is misleading. Designing fonts is not like writing a punk rock song or editing a home video; one needs to reach the higher levels of proficiency to come up with anything passable (at least for setting text). Perhaps eventually we'll have artificially intelligent font design tools which assist the user, but until then, it's one of the more demanding creative disciplines.
posted by acb at 1:11 PM on September 16, 2009


Helvetica would've been dismissed immediately as "too innovative"

Given that there were sans serifs in the 19th century (including ones with an ancestral familiarity to Helvetica), and fairly successful ones in the 1930s (Futura and Gill Sans come to mind), perhaps not.
posted by acb at 1:18 PM on September 16, 2009


acb: Though, on the other hand, pretending that anyone can sit down and come up with a perfectly good substitute for (insert name of well-known font here) is misleading. Designing fonts is not like writing a punk rock song or editing a home video; one needs to reach the higher levels of proficiency to come up with anything passable (at least for setting text). Perhaps eventually we'll have artificially intelligent font design tools which assist the user, but until then, it's one of the more demanding creative disciplines.

I didn't pretend that anybody could sit down and make a perfectly good font; nor did John Lydon pretend that anybody could sit down and write a fantastic song, by the way. But he believed that opening the realm up to everybody made it more likely that more great songs would be written; and I hope I don't have to start listing fantastic songs by people who a year earlier couldn't play an instrument to prove my point.

Many of the plastic arts are the same. I am still utterly convinced that there are genius typographers out there who have never touched typefaces because they've always been told that they should leave it to the experts.

acb: Given that there were sans serifs in the 19th century (including ones with an ancestral familiarity to Helvetica), and fairly successful ones in the 1930s (Futura and Gill Sans come to mind), perhaps not.

I said Helvetica would have been dismissed if people had had the same attitude they have today. And I stand by that statement. Typography is the one artistic realm in which people have gotten more conservative than they were; I have a feeling it's because of some reactionism, but I can't be sure.
posted by koeselitz at 1:54 AM on September 18, 2009


You think it's grown more conservative? The barriers to a new font are SO much lower now than they were in the days of printing presses.
posted by smackfu at 6:24 AM on September 18, 2009


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