Say hello to Helvetica

Think of some of the largest, most widely known corporations in the world: AT&T, Microsoft, Target, American Airlines, Panasonic, 3M, Toyota, Post-It, Crate & Barrel, Staples, BASF, Sears, JCPenney.

Now think about what they have in common. Give up? Look at the logos. More specifically, look at the letters.

They all use fonts that are either constructed in, or based on, what is most arguably the most popular typeface in modern design. Helvetica is everywhere, and (unless you never leave your house), you have seen it thousands of times:

  • Mass transit signs for numerous cities throughout North America, including New York and Chicago.
  • The main typeface for the U.S. government, used everywhere from Internal Revenue Service forms to the U.S. Postal Service. It’s also the main typeface for the Canadian government.
  • Just about any printed logo from Apple, including iPod, iPad and iTunes.
  • The album sleeve of John Coltrane’s classic album “A Love Supreme,” and hundreds of other album and CD covers.
  • The television rating (TV-G, TV-Y, TV-Y7, etc.) that appears during TV shows.
  • Advertisements, storefronts, manuals, instructions, newspapers, magazines, and just about any other kind of printed material.
  • And last, but certainly not least, on the side of the Space Shuttle.

Entire books have been written about (and in) Helvetica, and the typeface inspired a feature-length documentary in 2007, which (not coincidentally) was Helvetica’s 50th birthday. That’s a pretty big impact for such a quiet, unassuming font.

By now, you must have some questions.

Where did Helvetica come from?

The typeface was created in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, two graphic designers in Switzerland whose goal was to develop a simple but versatile sans serif typeface. Its early version was originally called “Neue Haas Grotesk,” and over time, its design was tweaked to its present basic form.

Why is it called Helvetica?

The name was changed in 1960 to make it more marketable worldwide, especially given the original name of Grotesk. The original suggestion was for “Helvetia,” which is the original Latin name for Switzerland. However, Hoffmann opted instead for “Helvetica,” which means “Swiss.”

So why do some of the Helvetica-based corporate logos look the same, while others look completely different?

Helvetica spawned a number of variants from the same family, such as Light, Compressed, Textbook, Narrow, and Rounded. Within each of those, there are typically bold, italic, and bold-italic variations. So technically, they’re all Helvetica.

Why is Helvetica so widely used?

Mainly because it’s so simple, yet so flexible. It was created specifically to be neutral, with the idea that design shouldn’t be affected positively or negatively by a typeface. In the 1950s, that was a stark contrast to the decorative type typically used in advertisements and corporate materials.

There are various theories as to why it has remained popular for so long. Probably the most prevalent thought is that it has become such an entrenched part of American corporate culture that it’s tough to turn to anything else. In other words, it’s the easiest, least debatable answer to the design problem. It’s neutrality means safety, but it leaves plenty of room for designers to do their thing.

So everyone loves Helvetica, right?

Not at all. Helvetica is simple, serious and safe, and that’s precisely why some designers don’t like it. Rather than viewing it as being adaptable to a wide range of design projects, some designers see it as an example of social and creative conformity driven by blind corporate mentality. At the risk of oversimplifying the naysayers’ point of view, Helvetica is a bland, boring typeface that doesn’t encourage risk-taking, and if you never swing for the fences, you never hit any home runs.

Is it true that there is no major difference between Arial and Helvetica?

It depends on what your definition of “major” is. First, some background: conventional wisdom holds that Arial was developed at the behest of Microsoft as a Helvetica lookalike. The company wanted to use Helvetica as a standard typeface choice in its operating system and software, but didn’t want to pay royalties or give credit, so it initiated the development of another “flavor” of a simple, serious and safe typeface.

It’s difficult to tell the difference between Helvetica and Arial unless you know what you’re looking for. The biggest differences are in the lowercase letter a, the capital letters G, Q, R, and the numeral 1. There are numerous “Arial-haters” among graphic artists and designers, but both typefaces look essentially the same and have the same simple, readable characteristics for everyday use.

And that’s what’s really important when you’re trying to fill out your income tax forms.

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Christmas gifts for the last minute

Time Running Out for Christmas GiftsIt’s easy for time to slip away, especially during the holiday season. And here we are, less than two weeks before the big day, and you’re still thrashing around, trying to find perfect Christmas gifts for the hard-to-buy-for people on your list.

Fortunately, if you’re a graphic artist, you have a built-in edge: As the master of graphic design software such as Adobe Illustrator, or photo image software like Adobe Photoshop, you have a ready-made arsenal of potential Christmas gifts.

Here are a couple of creative quick-hit ideas that are still possible to pull off, simply by leveraging work that you have already done.

Certificates for Christmas Gifts
Everybody knows about buying gift certificates from any of the large retailers, or even local shops. But have you ever considered creating gift certificates of your own? Mom’s always trying to meet with you for lunch, but you never have the time. So create a gift certificate for 10 weekend lunches in 2011. Print it on a 5” x 7” card, and put it in an envelope under the Christmas tree.

If Dad’s a football fan, put together certificates as Christmas gifts with a promise of tickets to a college or pro game next fall. Better yet, make up “fake” football tickets that can represent the real thing (when you’re finally able to get hold of them).

That’s a lot of responsibility on your part – once you make the promise, you have to follow through. But it’s a perfect opportunity to take advantage of one of life’s biggest truths: your time is one of the best Christmas gifts you can give anyone.

Posters and canvas art
It seems like a stretch to create a piece of art that could easily become a decoration for someone’s home or office. But an online print shop can easily take one of your best designs and turn it into something suitable for hanging. Simply upload your image, specify which material you want to use (canvas works best), and in three or four days, you have a gift ready to go under the Christmas tree.

You can use the same method to create a framed poster, printing the artwork on heavy duty vinyl or plastic. Either way, they’re Christmas gifts that keep on giving.

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New ideas for Christmas cards

Christmas TreeThere are two ways to approach the task of sending out Christmas cards during the holiday season: As a boring chore that takes up several hours of your life that you’re never going to get back, or as a fun challenge to find a creative way to integrate your Christmas ideas into attractive, graphic-driven cards that everyone will remember.

You don’t need to be a graphics professional to turn out a memorable Christmas card. Here are a few ideas to get you on the right track:

  • Remember that there are free sources of graphics all over the Internet.  For example, a quick search on Google turned up at least a half-dozen sites with free clip art of Christmas trees. A full-color Christmas tree is an eye-catching cover for any card. Watch out for spam, though.
  • The message is as important as the graphic. Christmas songs are an excellent source of material for your sentiments. In mainstream Christmas music, you’ll find words like “Pray for peace, people everywhere!” from “Do You Hear What I Hear?”Go outside the mainstream, and you’ll find Christmas lyrics like “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere; go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Whichever Christmas song you use, the message is clear.
  • Don’t forget the outside of the Christmas card as well. Once it’s sealed in an envelope, you can easily find sealing wax and a monogram stamp and most stationery stores. Seal the envelope, melt some wax and imprint your monogram, and it’s a classy way to give your Christmas cards the right look.

Of course, if you’re feeling particularly generous you can always sneak a Christmas gift inside each envelope. Gift certificates are bound to make any Christmas card more attractive, but they’ll also send you well on your way to the poorhouse. It’s easier to use your artistic gifts instead.

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New exhibit shows history of AIDS awareness posters

An exhibit that concluded earlier this week at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design highlighted AIDS awareness posters created by artists worldwide, representing a wide range of design styles that have communicated messages of awareness and tolerance for the past 25 years.

“Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters, 1985-2010,” featured 153 posters from 44 countries. The work was informative, memorable, and sometimes provocative, and it showed how graphic artists can make an impact on society just by utilizing their talents.

Click here to read more…

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Christmas imagination

Let’s face it: typical Christmas advertisements for print are boring at best, and stupid at their worst. Fortunately, there are exceptions.

Notice that these advertisements all deliver something unexpected, whether it’s a reindeer with an M&M strapped to his nose, or a dog dressed up in a Santa costume for a Christmas card. Customers needs a surprise, something that stops them in their tracks. These advertising images certainly qualify. They’re borrowed from,, and

The only thing that’s worse than a stupid advertisement is one that everybody ignores. That’s certainly not the case with these ads.

Santa Shaves

Gillette decided that Santa needed a new look, courtesy of the Mach 3 razor.

Reindeer Loves Red M&Ms

Rudolph had to sit it out this Christmas, so Santa’s lead reindeer finds an alternative.

Santa Claus is a Dog

Putting a beard on the dog would have presented a huge challenge.

Washed-Out Santa Claus

Omino Bianco detergent shows what happens when Santa tries to do his own laundry.

St. Bernard Delivers Starbucks

The perfect gift for anyone who’s stranded in a blizzard.

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C-M-Y-K spells “full color”

Here’s a simple question: What color is a stop sign? And there’s a simple answer — red.

But for graphic designers, printing press operators, and anyone who works with printed materials, the answer is a little more complicated: 0% Cyan, 95% Magenta, 100% Yellow and 0% Black.

It seems like a language of its own, and it is. But it’s an important language to learn, because if there is 50% Magenta instead of 95%, the stop sign is orange instead of red. So here’s a simplified explanation of the language of “process color,” or “four-color” printing.

It’s not a difficult language to understand, and knowing how to “speak” it can make all the difference in the world when creating an attractive, color-correct print job. And one of the biggest obstacles to an effective printing job is when artwork isn’t sent to the printer with each of the four color values clearly defined.
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First, the basics

As with any language, let’s start with a basic term. “Four-color” printing refers to the concept that every full-color image — photographs, logos, typography, or anything else that shows up in print — is actually made up of four colors of ink layered on top of each other during the printing process to create every shade of every color imaginable.

The next part of the language involves the four colors used in printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. They’re generally referred to in that order in the printing industry, using letter designations: C for Cyan, M for Magenta, Y for Yellow, and K for black. “K” is used as the designated letter for black to avoid any possibility of confusion with other colors, such as blue.

The first two aren’t colors in the traditional sense. Cyan is a blue-green, while Magenta is a reddish-pink. The other two stay true to form: Yellow is yellow, and Black is black. But the four colors, layered on top of each other in different levels of intensity, create virtually every shade of every color imaginable.

Layers of color

Using the stop sign as an example, a graphic artist would use a computer program to create the image. The artist creates four layers — C,M,Y and K — with an individual layer for each of the four colors, and can vary the color intensity of those layers to achieve the correct shade of red. Once the image is complete, the artist generates four different layers, or “separations,” that are sent to the printer to create the ink plates that will be used to print the sign.

The print shop uses those separations to determine how much ink is used on each of the four plates during the printing process. Each plate — C,M,Y or K — contains only that color, which varies in intensity. For example, 0% Yellow is the absence of yellow ink, while 100% is full intensity.

So where does red come from?

The different percentage values of each ink plate, layered on top of each other during the printing process, create not only the actual color, but the shade and intensity as well. In the case of the stop sign, the Cyan printing plate has no color, with 0%, because none is needed to create that shade of red. The Magenta plate has a 95% value, since it plays a huge role in the finished color. The Yellow plate has 100% saturation, since it needs that much to balance out the pinkish tone of Magenta, and the Black (K) plate has 0% value, because it isn’t required.

As the stop sign is printed, each of the four ink plates layers the exact concentration of color on the sign to produce the correct shade of red. By changing just one of the four inks even a few percentage points, it can change the shade from a dark red to a lighter red. Or by making a radical change, like decreasing the intensity of the Magenta to 50 percent, the Yellow suddenly becomes more dominant in the layering process. One layer with more Yellow and the other with less Magenta means that the printed image is no longer red — it’s orange.

The color equation

If that sounds confusing, here’s a simple way of looking at it:

C + M + Y + K = Color and shading.

The good news is, the graphics program is in charge of sorting out that equation. Every graphics program allows the artist to change any of the four CMYK colors instantly, and immediately see the result. The important part is to understand how the colors interact when they are layered as ink on the printing press.

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