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Beware of Helvetica!

May 23, 2008


A Specific typeface can convey a subtle message to the viewer as to not only what type of business it is, but how it is run. Whether it’s trendy, rundown, or a cornerstone of the local community and hasn’t changed in decades.

Not all typeface was obviously developed at the same time, and many are a VERY specific product of their era. Every major culutral movement has had its prefered typefaces, and those were popular and prevalent on business signs.

How times (and typefaces) have changed!


 Notice the wide range of typefaces found in this 1910 scene in New York. More Oranate, serif fonts with ascending, arched, or condensed words trying to fit everything on the signs. Also notice the CONTENT of the signs. “H.H. Worthmeyer- Provider of fine far eastern goods & Furniture Since 1864” would probably be a more typical message. Also notice the “Cheap Signs” sign in the lower right!

(Photo Postcard probably from “Postcards from Old L.A.(.com)” This is Famous Sunset and Vine streets in Hollywood in 1954, just a few years before HELVETICA took over the world. Notice all the wacky Streamline Moderne and Fifties fonts, like on the “Music City” sign. The beginning of the Acronym Era, NBC, ABC appear with all too many businesses to follow. Look at the “Broadway” Dept. Store Sign on the roof!

(Photo from Wikipedia)  LOOK at all the typefaces! From all the special Broadway fonts to the “tkts” written in HELVETICA in the extreme right bottom corner, it’s all here.

Another cornerstone of realism lies not only in the signs, as described in my earlier article on how using puns for names might hurt your modeling, it’s how the shape of the letters makes a difference. Don’t think typefaces make a difference? look at this:



All too often I spot an older prewar building with HELVETICA typeface on its signs…a big achronistic mistake that could hurt the structure’s realism.

Although it really is the perfect typeface, in it’s design, readibility and execution, it’s only 50 years old as of 2007.

It also goes by aliases of “Arial” (developed in 1983, nearly similar) and Microsoft MS Sans, obviously developed in the last 20 years. 

Helvetica is Just the Tip of the Iceburg, of Course.


Other Fonts to keep an eye on:



-Gormond and Palitino date back before the 15th century, so they’d be safe to use anywhere.
-Baskerville and Bodoni are 18th and 19th century fonts.
-Courier,  was developed for IBM in the 1950’s.
-Gill Sans – 1927
-Futura, an excellent art-deco font -1927 also.
-Univers- 1957
-Century Schoolbook, a popular american typeface, was developed in 1917.
-Coronet- 1937.









3 Comments leave one →
  1. Elson permalink
    May 24, 2008 9:39 am

    Well, not every modern sans-serif font is “helvetica.” Then again, it’s also the application…every airport in the last 30 or so years uses helvetica as its primary signage font…and the classic “Amtrak” typeface up until recently was Helvetica.

    Speaking of which, there was even a documentary on the history of the helvetica typeface which came out recently:

    One note on the old Sunset & Vine picture, from a Hollywood native, “The Broadway” was not a hotel but a department store. The store is long gone but the sign and building still remain. The building is being converted into condos right now.

  2. May 24, 2008 5:19 pm

    Thanks for the correction with the “Broadway” sign, I’ll go fix that now.

    I actually watched that documentary, it was really neat!

    Certianly not every sans-serif font is helvetica, but it IS the default typeface on most computers, and a lazy modeler would just use the default font to create a sign, I’ve seen it happen all too often on prize-winning models.

    Helvetica was developed in 1957.

    It really didn’t become popular in the US until the early 1960’s, and it was EVERYWHERE by 1968.

  3. June 19, 2008 3:31 am

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Delay.

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