Helvetica: the Beauty of Simplicity

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Font faces are one of the most overlooked details in all of design. Typography permeates the world around us, and has done so for thousands of years. Typography is a unique art in the way that it allows emotion to be directly connected to meaning. Like how a song contains music as well as lyrics, written words contain meaning as well as emotion derived from the aesthetics of the letters.

One of the most popular typefaces today is Helvetica. Helvetica is a Neo-grotesque, Sans-serif font created by swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger in 1957. Sans-serif type is type that does not contain serifs, while Serif fonts contain a small stroke at the end of each letter.
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Grotesque and Neo-grotesque typefaces are sans-serif fonts designed with certain characteristics like having an R with a curled leg, the ends of curved strokes ending horizontally, and having squareness of curves.
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The Neo-grotesque style is derived from Grotesque and only has minor differences like the ends of the curved strokes being oblique and the g being open tailed rather then being spurred.
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Helvetica has been modified over the years so that the modern typeface has more then 30 variations to the original.

So aside from an interesting history, what makes Helvetica one of the most popular fonts used by designers?

Neutrality

First, Helvetica is one of the most neutral fonts. In short, it’s a typeface that gets out of your way and allows the content or it’s surroundings to speak. I’m not saying that Helvetica is emotionally neutral, but that it has the ability to blend with it’s surroundings better then other fonts do.

Readability

Helvetica is one of the most readable fonts ever designed. The human mind can read it with more ease and speed then other typefaces. Often, signs are written in Helvetica because it is easy to read even when it is in motion.

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Simplicity

Simplicity is another reason why so many designers use Helvetica. The shapes of the letters are geometrically symmetrical and simple. Many designers use the typeface at an extremely large size to create form in a composition rather then just for typography.
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Diversity

Helvetica can be used in a wide variety of styles. Just by searching the internet you can find a huge number of styles and applications that use Helvetica. Here are some examples below.

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Grunge and Abstract art

I’ve been experimenting with creating grunge/abstract compositions in Photoshop. One reason why I really enjoy this style more than the more traditional and balanced styles is that I don’t need to work as hard to get it looking “just right”. Since the style calls for distress and a sense of chaos, I can throw elements together without needing to unify them. Another reason I like this style is that it forces you to look more at the emotion of the composition rather than the content.

Here are some examples

This image started out as just the background and the tree, but after taking the picture of the flower, I decided to just start adding more nature elements.

This was a fun abstract composition which turned out to have a lot of meaning. It symbolically represents the fundamentals of God’s creation. The yellow circles in the top-left represent the sun, and the brown triangle represents the earth. The red shape represents multi-dimensionality, the green triangle, trigonometry and the large circle represents the infinite. I also created the subtle outlines of Pi and infinity on the background.

This is an imaginary movie or video game poster. I wanted to use the picture of this guy’s head, so I just started experimenting the overlay blending mode and different textures.

For this image, I wanted to create a dirty, retro wallpaper. I used Adobe Illustrator to create all the shapes, then added text and overlaid textures to make it look dirty and worn.

Check out my flickr page for more of my artwork

Designing from scratch

I admire concept artists for their ability to imagine something, and then create it visually from their mind. This blogpost is about my first good result from attempting to create something from my mind. I don’t have a lot of skill in drawing. This is obviously a big disadvantage because sketches are the fastest way to get ideas into a tangible medium. This is why I was so excited when I first saw Alchemy. So instead of drawing traditionally, I used Alchemy to create a rough idea. This idea turned out to be good enough for me to create a model in Blender.

Using this image as reference, I started working in Blender.

To create the main body shape, I started out with a cube and extruded it’s sides until I had a shape that looked like this.

I then used a method called Sub-surf to increase the number of sides (or faces) on the body. This made it appear smooth.

A really great tool that I learned about recently in Blender is called the Lattice modifier. The lattice modifier is a 3D grid that you assign to an object. When you warp the grid, the mesh follows along. This saves a huge amount of time because I can reshape the mesh without having to move each face individually.

I used a Lattice modifier on the body to reshape the back stabilizers.

After the body, I needed to create the engines. The shape of the engines were crucial for the look I wanted the ship to have so I spent a bit of time getting it just right. Just like the body, I created the low resolution mesh and then applied a sub-surf modifier to it to smooth it out. I also mirrored the engines so anything I did to one, would be done to the other.

The next piece was the canopy. This was the most difficult part of the entire model because I could not get the shape right. If I started from a sphere or a cube, it just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to. So after much trial and error, I decided to start from a single plane, and build the canopy from that plane. It took longer, but I got the look I wanted.

After the modeling was done, I moved on to materials and textures to give the ship it’s worn, grungy look. As well as make the glass for the canopy.

I also added the headlights of the ship. I used a feature in Blender called halos which makes a mesh become particles and glow instead of appearing solid. I used this same technique to create the flames out the back as well.

I then added an environment map for the background and reflections, and looked at the final result.

After tweaking materials and stuff, I took the image into the final stage of 3D which is called compositing. Compositing is basically like having a mini-Photoshop inside Blender. It allows you to add things to your image that would have been hard to add normally through modeling. The compositor works sort of like a factory, with materials coming in one side and the result coming out the other side. This is shown graphically in Blender by nodes.

This is the setup I created for the effects I wanted to add to the image. Each wire carries the image data to the next module, and that module manipulates the data and then sends it out to the next module. The final image is shown below.

When you see the final image, the jumble of wires in the compositor start to make sense!

Finally, I used Pixelmator to do some color and lighting adjustments.

A short demo reel

Check out my other 3D renders at Flickr