The Helvetica Meditations

Written by Nick Shinn on June 14, 2005


Twenty-four Foci

1. Being and Nothingness

2. Actualizing the Environment

3. The Anti-Aesthetic

4. At the Frontier of Commerce

5. The sign of the Engineer

6. Twenty-first Century Reductive Identity Design

7. The Wisdom of Crowds

8. Urbanality

9. Synergy of Common-ness

10. This Too is History

11. Metaculture as Culture

12. The Migration of Interest

13. When Memory Becomes Imagination

14. Public Service

15. Recontextual

16. Fortress Art

17. Formalized Transgression

18. Corporatization

19. The Sign of the Engineer II

20. Sorry, No Icon for Mud Available

21. Letter by Letter

22. The Horror of Horizontal Scaling

23. Taint of the Cack Hand

24. Survival

Canadian type designer Nick Shinn, R.G.D. grew up in Barton-le-Clay, England, and now lives in Orangeville, Ontario. He went into the font business full time in 1998 with Shinntype. He has written for magazines such as Eye and Codex, and spoken at the ATypI, TypeCon, TYPO Berlin and TYPO San Francisco conferences.


  1. One or two of those might actually be Arial (I’m looking at #7)

  2. Wonderfully observed. And a sentiment close to my heart (but one perhaps lost on those too busy trying to spot whether it’s Arial or Helvetica).

  3. kai bernau says:

    Nick, this is simply beautiful.
    Thank you so much.

  4. Jeff Gill says:

    Nick, fantastic & very funny. Helvetica never looked so British. You aren’t by any chance going to follow this up with “The Gill Sans Meditations”?

  5. Troubleman says:

    Brilliant post, Nick. Poetry in stop-motion.

    BTW #6 “Twenty-first Century Reductive Identity Design” is Univers, those numerals don’t lie. #7 is Helvetica indeed. But let’s not get nitpicky here. ;-)

    Thank you for this wonderful intermission in an otherwise hectic day.

  6. Andrew says:

    I work in the restaurant opposite picture no 3, and I’ve probably seen that view a hundred times. This is an excellent collection, thank you :)

  7. jacontre says:

    death to helvetica

  8. Makes me tear up a bit. Since Helvetica’s reputation has been tarnished by abundant use during the 60s-80s, I’m glad to see one of my favorite typefaces used. Unfortunately in the states you just don’t see it anymore.

    Helvetica will once again be the typeface of choice in a few years, but until that time I shall look longingly at your page thinking back to the good old days.

    Death to Sand.

  9. Ben Knight says:

    Very nice Nick, but you missed this one though;

    The Rud(er)imentary:

  10. ah, Helvetica. what a beautiful sight. do we really need any other typefaces? i know the answer is yes, but Helvetica is like that one dish you know you can get at just about any restaurant and it will always be extra-good. it just works.

  11. Todd says:

    Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface
    good book…
    nice collection

  12. Number three is either Akzidenz Grotesk or Monotype Grotesque–the x-height is too small for Helvetica.

  13. Karen F. says:

    I think #6 is also Arial. Nevertheless, good sampling of sources here, and the titles are great.

  14. mehallo says:

    Nice meditations … Thanks. Actually gave me a moment to relax during a busy day …

    But alas, I got stuck on the leading and spacing problems in #8, which did bring me back to reality far too soon.

    The curse of a trained eye …

  15. mehallo says:

    Nice meditations … Thanks. Actually gave me a moment to relax during a busy day …

    But alas, I got stuck on the leading and spacing problems in #8, which did bring me back to reality far too soon.

    The curse of a trained eye …

  16. Does this wonderful collection imply that Helvetica is the UK’s favourite font? Could be a lot worse…

  17. Nick Shinn says:

    OK nitpickers:

    #3: yes, the caps are a bit big, and it looks like they’re actually scaled up in size relative to the lower case, although there isn’t enough resolution on my digital snap to tell. Could it be some signage lettering glitch? Although it can’t be discerned in the image online, the type on the colorful sign in the foreground is Helvetica — these safety signs are mandatory on building sites in the UK, with type specs (font, color, size) specified.

    #6 is Arial.

    Several of the engineering signs could be “Standard”.

    If I had done this in the US, I could have included samples of Chalet.

    As far as I’m concerned, they’re all the same typeface: interpretations of the same invention, not original typeface designs.


    I suspect that I could have come up with similar “ubiquitous” results if I had done this in a different country. What particularly struck me was the prevalence of Helvetica in public spaces through its use as an (industrial) safety standard. Is Helvetica the face mandated for this in other countries, or do Germans use DIN and Americans Futura, for instance?

  18. Caleb says:

    The danger of eath sign is my favorite.

  19. Dan Mall says:

    Not that Helvetica isn’t a very-well drawn and beautiful typeface, but just because it is used everywhere doesn’t mean it should be. Like every face, it has right and wrong settings.

  20. Sara Soskolne says:

    Good eye, Scott: I think #3 might actually be Folio, if memory serves…

  21. Nick Shinn says:

    This is the maximum res I have.

  22. Will Powers says:

    Obsessive type ID oneupmanship is not really called for here, folks. Sit back and enjoy the fun and beauty of what Nick Shinn has given us. Compulsive typo-nitpicking is not a healthy habit. It always gets in the way of art appreciation.


  23. Jason Campbell says:

    Re: #3:
    This brings me back to my days in the sign business, before typography. #3 makes use of injected molded letters, usually made by a company called Gemini. These letters are pre-fab, and often installed with the roughest of templates. See the chart of a Gemini distributor.

    Interesting how they actually order lower case letters of a different “size” than the correspoinding Upper Case! Anyway, the sign companies are limited to the choices made by Gemini, and they may have used a slightly different size for the lower case than the Capitals when constructing their molds.

  24. Great info, Jason, thank you! That answers a lot of questions for me about building signage. It’s easy to forget that not everything is made in Illustrator with conventional fonts.

  25. James Montalbano says:

    Those two versions of ClearviewOne on Gemini’s website are very old versions and are custom weights to boot. I think I did those versions back in 1996 or 97. They’ve had them for quite a while.

  26. Chris Keegan says:

    I thought this site was ABOUT being nitpicky about type.

  27. Nick Shinn says:

    Nitpicky? — Bring it on!
    (But thanks for the respect, Will.)


    Another signage technology — I’m guessing that #21 is Letrasign or a similar adhesive lettering. Very labour intensive.

  28. Bobby Henderson says:

    The Gemini letters observation is interesting. Wagner, MetalArts have similar product lines. However, #3 doesn’t appear to be injection molded plastic letters. They look like flat, routed acrylic letters. Pretty bad idea to attempt mounting them directly to that corrugated building. Just look how they’re leaning all over the place.

    The type is still Helvetica, or a clone of it in a proprietary sign making font format (such as Scanvec .SCF files). Probably CG Triumvirate or “Nimbus Sans.”

  29. Eric Shinn says:

    These pics are a nice surprise, Nick – I thought for sure you would have used the following linked image for “#17 – formalized transgression” and put the rave posters as “urbanality”…

    Helveticapparel: Fuck the font that is fucking the people!?

    Funny how typefaces can appear when sought. I don’t doubt the ubiquity of Helvetica whatsoever, but isn’t it curious how fonts can be “fixed within the prosody”? (WMD = Writings of Mnemonic Decryption; anyone know if the Downing Street Memos were set in Helvetica to help fix facts around Iraq war policy?)

    If I arrive in the UK with this thread in mind, I’ll notice all the Helvetica. I live in Montreal, and it took a recent feature in EYE on the popularity of Mistral in this city for me to have a whoa moment and realize that it is everywhere here. But the article could also have been written about any number of faces which appear all over Montreal, including Helvetica. I am sure that tomorrow when I wake up and leave home my helvetica awareness will be on red alert… oh no the terror!

    Forgive me if this should actually be a separate thread called “Willing fonts into focus – quantum dotting every eye”. We could discuss font families as sleeper cells, but it could send this forum think tanking down the slippery slope towards realizing the Project for the New Alphabetic Century…

  30. Nick Shinn says:


    I used that ad as a visual in “Against Helvetica” talk at ATypI Vancouver. also, i’m sensitive to chester’s distaste for my anti-helvetica rants, so the approach here is less polemical.

    >quantum dotting every eye

    So that’s how the dot went missing on the Securicor logo — quantum theft.

  31. kadavy says:

    This is hilarious.

  32. Kristin says:

    What a lovely collection and commentary, Nick!

    This would make a wonderful accordion booklet if you wanted a print version. In fact, I might make one up for my desk if you don’t mind the downloads.

  33. NIck,

    Nice display. It’s funny how many different reactions typefaces rise within people. I myself LOVE to HATE Helvetica so much I even had to print a t-shirt about it. Typography sure is fun!!!


  34. zach says:

    if i were a typeface……i would be helvetica.

  35. Apparently you’re not the only one, Zach …

    From FontShop’s “I Am” Gallery.

  36. Ken Kelleher says:

    Helvetica is still being used in a parallel universe. It’s a place where designers go when they’ve had too much curry.

  37. Nick Shinn says:

    26. Good News for Blind Mice.

  38. what are we all going to do the day Helvetica freezes over?

  39. Helvetica seems to me to be another one of those things that for some reson has come into existence, for some reason stayed on and grew, and for some reason achieved fame. It is rather illegible (for larger amounts of texts), and aesthetically difficult. The proportions of the majuscules make it particularly hard to space optically. And the closed round shapes (G,C,S) prevent the eye on it’s reading path. The only mystery it holds is why it exists at all. Exorcise it!

  40. lw says:

    What is causing the funny symbols when quotes and apostrophes are used like it the example post below? Is it the font that is being used? Need to find a basic font that does not cause the funny symbol

    Brilliant post, Nick. Poetry in stop-motion.

    BTW #6 �Twenty-first Century Reductive Identity Design� is Univers, those numerals don�t lie. #7 is Helvetica indeed. But let�s not get nitpicky here. ;-)

  41. lw, These symbols are unfortunately common in older Typographica posts because we failed to select the correct HTML encoding when we converted the site to a new WordPress back in 2006 or so. They will appear no matter what font is used.

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