The grotesk as universal font

We complain about the reflexive and unthinking use of Arial for captions and subtitles. We complain about such use everywhere, actually.

But is this really a new phenomenon? Are people who use Arial (or Helvetica, or other grotesks) by default actually responding to a kind of intentional programming? Is it just habit and conventional wisdom?

There are better options

Before we check the literature for an answer to this question, we need to reiterate that, for most applications, there’s always a better choice than Arial or Helvetica. Perhaps that choice is another grotesk, like Univers or Akzidenz. More likely it’s another font altogether.

Remember, we are talking about performance characteristics more than looks. “I can read it” always wins out over “I like the design,” though it's desirable to have both at once. For the specific performance requirements of captioning and subtitling, it’s not immediately clear when Arial or Helvetica (or Univers or Akzidenz) ever would be the best choice, for reasons discussed elsewhere.

Literature review

Let’s take a look at a few passages from the literature that may shed light on why Helvetica and other grotesks are viewed as a kind of default font.

We can start with the first significant proponent of the grotesk style, Jan Tschichold, a German typographer and graphic designer. As Robin Kinross (for it is he) explains in his “Introduction to the English-Language Edition” of Tschichold’s The New Typography, translated by Ruari McLean (University of California Press, 1998):

Jan Tschichold (1902–1974) was the son of a Leipzig signwriter and lettering artist. His early start in – and lifetime preoccupation with – lettering and typography [are] thus not surprising. [In 1923] he began to practice “the previously-unknown profession of typographic designer”.... The second turning point was Tschichold’s conversion to modernism, which he dated from his visit to the exhibition of the Weimar Bauhaus in the summer of 1923. [...]

On the question of letterforms, the demands made by German New Typography... might be seen in this way: Roman as a minimum demand; sansserif (as a special category of “roman” [instead of blackletter]) as the preferred choice; and then a reformed orthography and alphabet as the maximum demand.... Currently-available sansserifs were not really satisfactory, and the recently-designed ones, such as Erbar and Kabel, show the idiosyncrasies of the “artist’s typefaces”....

[I]n choosing a typeface for this book, he was constrained by what the printer had available.... The typeface used was an “Akzidenz Grotesk”: A “jobbing sansserif,” designed anonymously, probably in the 1900s.... Tschichold was at least aware that readability was a prime issue, if one that was complicated by the other issues with which he was then concerned.

Tschichold himself has this to say about the grotesk (pp. 77–78):

A book about the Thirty Years’ War had to be set in a different face from Mörike’s poems or an industrial catalogue. But St. Augustine was set in textura, not in uncial! All printed matter of whatever kind that is created today must bear the hallmark of our age, and should not imitate printed matter of the past. This applies not only to the typeface but of course to every element of the manufacture....

An art historian may prize the good qualities of the old Schwabacher type, and we too can see that it was an excellent face of its period, but we must not use it today. It is totally unsuitable for the 20th century. So are all the other historical typefaces....

The best typefaces are those which can be used for all purposes, and the bad ones those which can be used only for visiting-cards or hymn books.

What we have since learned is that Tschichold turned out to be right and wrong at the same time: Yesterday’s typefaces are not suitable for the current century, but custom-made typefaces are the answer for custom problems.

Appeal to “formalists”

We find the same argument from Helvetica apologists. Lars Müller’s Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface (Lars Müller Publishers, 2002) notes, among other things, that “The history of grotesk typefaces, their designers, and foundries in the 20th century has yet to be fully documented.... With the advent of digital media, copies of Helvetica proliferated, the most widespread [being] Arial by Monotype.”

Müller also places himself squarely on the wrong side of history when he declares:

[P]eople would make a better choice by means of honest, functional communication. The commercial game rules of this attitude were called information graphics. Akzidenz Grotesk was the typeface of the movement and the sign of recognition among like-minded people....

How excitingly old-fashioned, avant-garde and efficient does the conviction seem of those designers capable of solving any problem of design with a handful of typefaces! Helvetica is always among them. This attitude is, of course, inseparable from the insight that idea and concept form the basis of intelligent and effective communication. Formalists are vain producers of samples for the software industry and victims of its breathless rat race....

Anything written in this typeface wants to be read.

Sadly, no.

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The grotesk as universal font