Is ubiquity of a typeface good or bad?

What are your thoughts on fonts that seem to be everywhere? If you have made one of them, how do you feel about it?

No research here, just curiosity, as some people (including myself from time to time) dismiss overly popular designs, but clearly others must like them otherwise they would not be continually used.

I'm specifically thinking of fonts like Helvetica, Gotham, Museo etc used by professional designers, not Office defaults (Calibri, Arial, Comic Sans, etc) that non-designers use because they don't know any better.


  • • As a designer, over popularity makes me clearly avoid using that typeface, as the identity could be too "trendy" and get old too fast.

    • As an adv/design agency, I'd probably present the popular font as the new Helvetica, the font of the century, the must-to-use font (maybe as very rarely adv agencies have typo knowledge and relay on trends)

    • As a typographer, I’d be happy to have designed Gotham as I'd be rich now ;-) On the other hand it always depends if we want to design something very innovative that will maybe not have an instant success; or balance strategy, marketing, design, ease-of-use of our font.
  • My rule of thumb: It's bad if you identify the typeface is before reading the text. Though that can be less about a typeface's ubiquity and more about how well the designer is using it.
  • Ubiquity is bad if a typeface is often used poorly and becomes associated with bad design. Univers is ubiquitous but nobody notices because it tends to be used by good designers. Eurostile is ubiquitous and everybody notices because it tends to be used by cheap vinyl sign shops.
  • So how do fonts like Helvetica fit in? It's been used both very well and extremely poorly.
  • I mostly tone Helvetica out. It’s like Coca-Cola advertising; it’s everywhere and just part of the subconscious wallpaper of civilization anywhere outside North Korea.
  • Ah, and that is sort of how I feel about Gotham and Museo, I seriously see them just about everywhere.
  • Does Museo really have the same spread as Gotham? I think its quirks make it stand out more than the other examples might.

    When I think of ubiquity, I think of Neutraface. Tons of designers have gotten their hands on it, and stretched the context past its limits. But that’s at display level, for something trying to grab attention.

    In Sweden we use a Bo Berndal face, Bosis aka SISPro. Literally every sign company has a copy, and it’s used almost exclusively for warning signs & information signage. When our public transportation Skånetrafiken used it in their identity, I smiled. It’s state owned company that with that move tries to take a step back and be taken for granted.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,015
    edited February 2013
    Fontesque was very popular in the mid 1990s.
    It was awesome to read a newspaper and see several ads set in it, or go to the supermarket and see lots of packaging using it.
    Perhaps I would be jealous of today's popular fonts if I hadn't had that success, but now I don't mind that I don't have any big hits at the moment, because I have a few types that are almost as old as Fontesque, but which continue to sell steadily, while Fontesque doesn’t, despite the recent major revamp. Long tail.
  • kupferskupfers Posts: 259
    edited February 2013
    Ubiquity is related to location very much (still). Spiekerfonts are everywhere in Germany but you might consider them unique and underused in Australia. Likewise, I don’t see Gotham or Neutraface all too much around here, just like Font Bureau typefaces feel fresh and exceptional when you don’t pass a US news stand everyday.

    One day I will write a book called Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Helvetica
  • I agree about location. And please write that book! :-)
  • Ubiquity is related to location very much (still).
    Very true! I rarely see Museo on the streets of New York because it’s all H&FJ and Font Bureau. But if I walk into K-Mart Museo is all over packaging, and if visit suburbia Museo is everywhere. And the Frutiger/Spiekermann derived designs that are popular in Europe are becoming rare in the USA.
  • I have different feelings for each font that's become popular, different general feelings over time, and different feelings over time for each font. But, eventually, I can tell you slightly off-topic, I banned nearly all uninvited analog type from my daily experience — kitchens, baths, living, dining, gardening and office... no visible type.
  • "I banned nearly all uninvited analog type... no visible type."

    Really, David. I can appreciate the sentiment, working on type all the time as we do. I on the other hand can't get enough of a good thing. I like seeing it used well in my surroundings. A nice set of 'letter' bookends, a great 'type' graphic on the wall. I've even been looking for a really neat 'typographic tie to wear'. But, can't seem to fine a decent one online anywhere. Anybody know where I can get one? Just, please no Helvetica! A nice, tastefully executed tie, with a variety of different letter forms. Hard to find.

    Anyway, I agree with Cavanaugh that "It's bad if you identify the typeface before reading the text". That's pretty much true. I think.

    Any font used well is a pleasant and welcomed surprise. It's all the bad examples floating out there, everywhere you look—a lot of really bad typography. When did it all start? I can't seem to remember. It's like one day I just woke up and It was everywhere.

    I seem to be 'cringing' an awful lot lately. It's actually painful. Now, if I could just find that tie, all would be right with the universe again.
  • "I banned nearly all uninvited analog type... no visible type."
    I expect extirpation of unnecessary text to be a general product design trend in the next decade. Apple really got this ball rolling by refusing to taint its designers with unnecessary wordmarks and logos at a time when other electronics makers were covering their products with badges advertising every single component. I think William Gibson foresaw this in his book Patten Recognition, whose protagonist has the brand names cut, torn, and filed away from everything she owns, even the rivets on blue jeans.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,015
    Ubiquity of the most popular fonts follows Zipf curve distribution. In other words, the most popular fonts are way more popular than the rest—it’s a power law, not a linear relationship.

    There are many factors which contribute to this.

    Zapf’s designs follow the principle, with Optima and Palatino overshadowing the likes of the middling Melior, and Edison and Marconi nowhere.

    Ubiquity of the most popular types is going to occur regardless, the issue of good/bad relates more to factors which influence it, such as bundling.
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