It is well-known that the general public literally could not care less about typography. If you asked the average Joe or Jane on the street what Helvetica was, they would most likely know it was a font. On the other hand, if you asked them what Frutiger, Futura, Bodoni or Clarendon was, they most likely would not have clue. To say that Helvetica is a mainstream font is an understatement to say the least. Mainstream or not, Helvetica is an amazingly well-crafted font with one of the most abundant collections of weights. Its sterile, machinist design works well with traditional Swiss design and can aid in giving a cleaner typographical look. That being said, Helvetica is not your only choice for a machinist san serif font.

Unlike some of the more humanistic and hyper-styled fonts, I feel the clean machinist fonts act as a neutral style element for a design. There are places where Gill Sans, Kabel and other unique san serifs just are not going to work, whereas I feel that the Helvetica-ish fonts will intrude much less with other styles.

type specimen

I personally think it is good to mix things up now and then with your choice of typography if the opportunity presents itself. In school, I became enamored with Clarendon and subsequently used it for an entire semester. That tends to be the problem – we form our list of favorite fonts and begin to limit ourselves to that list. You rarely are going to go wrong with Helvetica, but conversely, that does not mean you are going to be right either. So the next time you are about to default to Helvetica again, perhaps you should take a look at the list of fonts below.

I have added what I consider to be the four most important weights for a font: regular, italic, light and bold. I am not particularly fond of condensed or extended weights nor do I personally use any non-regular italic weights. Therefore, to add some variety without getting out of control, I thought these four weights would allow for a good feel of each font. While I truly wish otherwise, I am by no means an expert on typography. The observations below are my opinions based on my experiences and I would love to hear if others disagree or feel I have said something in error.

As you may notice, some of the “Quick brown fox” quotes are slightly different than others. This is because I used fontshop’s type preview tool which uses a different rendition of this quote here and there. Please excuse the inconsistency.

Helvetica Neue

Before we go into alternatives, I thought it would be helpful to display the basic Helvetica font weights. The infamous Helvetica Neue has 67 different weights. You just flat out are not going to find that in almost any other font family.

From Linotype:

The Helvetica (Latin for Swiss) has the objective and functional style which was associated with Swiss typography in the 1950s and 1960s. The font is perfect for international correspondence: no ornament, no emotion, just clear presentation of information. Helvetica font is still one of most popular sans-serif fonts.
Helvetica, the typeface par excellence, can look back on a colourful life. Originally designed for hand composition, it has been adapted over the years for all methods of composition: from hot metal line composition, and opto-mechanical phototypesetting of the first generation, to digital typesetters.

Helvetica Regular

Helvetica Regular

Helvetica Italic

Helvetica Italic

Helvetica Light

Helvetica Light

Helvetica Bold

Helvetica Bold

Univers

Univers is a very well designed font created by Adrian Frutiger. Albeit subtle, the font is slightly more condensed and has a shorter x-height than Helvetica. There is almost no variation between thicks and thins just as is the case with Helvetica. Univers also has a large collection of weights, allowing for a great amount of flexibility in use. Out of all of the Helvetica alternatives in this article, Univers is most likely the most machinist of them all.

Univers Regular

Univers Regular

Univers Italic

Univers Italic

Univers Light

Univers Light

Univers Bold

Univers Bold

Franklin Gothic

Franklin Gothic is a much simpler font set with only three weights. The font has a few more distinctive and unique features in its ears and terminals, but nothing too stylistic or out of the ordinary. Like Helvetica, its x-height is relatively high which should allow for better legibility at small sizes. The slight contrast between thicks and thins gives it a ever-so-slightly more humanistic feel than the two fonts above.

Franklin Gothic Regular

Franklin Gothic Regular

Franklin Gothic Italic

Franklin Gothic Italic

Franklin Gothic Bold

Franklin Gothic Bold

Interstate

Interstate is one of my favorite san serifs. While I consider some of its characters a bit squatty, the font has a unique yet extremely simple design – especially in its descenders. This font also has a very large collection of weights as well as a beautiful hairline weight that I would love to get my hands on. The name Interstate is no coincidence as this is the official font used for the United States’ highway signs.

Interstate Regular

Interstate Regular

Interstate Italic

Interstate Italic

Interstate Light

Interstate Light

Interstate Bold

Interstate Bold

DIN

I was a bit hesitant to include this font as I am not too big of a fan of DIN. Nonetheless, many designers, including quite a few of my colleagues, use DIN quite often with good results. Personally, I feel DIN is extremely squatty – far more than Interstate. The lowercase a and s alone keep me from using it. Ironically, DIN’s origin is quite similar to that of Interstate’s as it was created to be the standard font for many of Germany’s government departments, including the traffic department.

DIN Regular

DIN Regular

DIN Italic

DIN Italic

DIN Light

DIN Light

DIN Bold

DIN Bold

Transit

Transit is probably the least machinist of all the listed fonts. Transit has greater contrast between thicks and thins than the other fonts and many letters are more open, especially the lowercase c and e. What stands out the most, however, is Transit’s italic weight with a completely different look for many of its lowercase letters. I am actually quite a big fan of this typeface as it retains a unique personality with a clean, minimalist look.

Transit Regular

Transit Regular

Transit Italic

Transit Italic

Transit Bold

Transit Bold

Brown Gothic

This font reminds me a lot of Univers in many respects, if just slightly more condensed and with less contrast between its thicks and thins. Personally, I think you could easily substitute Brown Gothic with Univers and vice versa as they are so similar. Nonetheless, there are some significant differences in some of the capital letters such as the B, R and S.

Brown Gothic Regular

Brown Gothic Regular

Brown Gothic Italic

Brown Gothic Italic

Brown Gothic Light

Brown Gothic Light

Brown Gothic Bold

Brown Gothic Bold

TV Nord

TV Nord reminds me of a Trade Gothic, if not a little more fluid. TV Nord has a relatively high x-height and is another example of a font with very little thicks and thins contrast. I personally am not the biggest fan of Trade Gothic and I feel TV Nord, while similar, is easier on the eyes. Nonetheless, with only three weights, TV Nord is less flexible than Trade Gothic. If you do not share my problems with Trade Gothic, I would suggest it over TV Nord.

TV Nord Regular

TV Nord Regular

TV Nord Italic

TV Nord Italic

TV Nord Bold

TV Nord Bold

I hope this list has opened some doors in the near future for choosing your next sans serif font. Every designer needs a Helvetica in their repertoire – it just does not actually need to be Helvetica, per say. Did I miss any fonts or make any glaring mistakes? Let me know.