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The Typographic Monotony of American Retail

15 of the 20 most common shopping brands use Helvetica.

Contributed by Sam Berlow on Jan 26th, 2011.

Campaigns from Home Depot, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney, and Gap.

There is a lot of Sturm und Drang about the ubiqitous use of Helvetica/Arial and the like, bombarding public life, selling us everything from power tools to makeup.

I don’t want to Spiek for anyone else, but my Twitter feed is full of Helvetica commentary, which at first was a nice respite from the Comic Sans ass’ination, but now seems to be bordering on futility. The battle is lost. Now we must wait for the gravitational pull to work its magic and we can rest assured that the tide will rise again to American Gothics — Benton Sans, Franklin, Gotham or contemporary European sans serifs, like FF Meta and FF Unit; or maybe even some of the juicy new designs I see popping up: Ardoise PTF, Alright SansFF Basic Gothic, and Founders Grotesk.

Typefaces Used by Top 20 US Retailers

Best Buy Futura, Knockout, Apex Sans
Costco Avenir
CVS Helvetica
Gap Helvetica
Home Depot Stencil, Helvetica
JC Penney Helvetica
Kohl’s Helvetica, Bodoni
Kroger ITC Avant Garde Gothic,
Helvetica
Lowe’s Helvetica, DIN
Macy’s ITC Avant Garde Gothic, Myriad
Publix Minion, Franklin Gothic
Rite Aid ITC Avant Garde Gothic,
Romeo, Helvetica, Gotham
Safeway Metro, Frutiger, Helvetica
Sears Helvetica
Staples Stencil, Helvetica
TJ Maxx Helvetica
Target Helvetica
Toys “R” Us Comic Strip, Avenir
Wal-Mart Myriad, Helvetica
Walgreens VAG Rounded, Interstate, Helvetica

Top companies from the “Specialty Retailers”, “General Merchandisers”, and “Food and Drug Stores” industries in the Fortune 500, listed in alphabetical order.

I am not a frequent retail shopper or TV viewer, but this year I rented a ski house with cable for the holidays and wandered through several malls. As I took in the American retail experience, I felt as if the Twitter feed was implanted into my brain like a Ray Kurzweil moment of singularity. I was living the feed. If not for a few visual godsends from Best Buy and Nordstrom, I was bombarded with what my German friend calls “lazy design hooligans”.

Years ago I asked a member of the AOL design team, why their mailers were so, uh, pedestrian. I was told in no uncertain terms that they were mailing the free discs in packaging that was carefully designed to not be “too hip or slick”. Their goal was to appeal to the mothers shopping for groceries.

In an age when thoughtful design is more accepted and understood than ever, I think American shoppers could handle a little bit more — dare I say — sophisticated typeface selections. Here’s the painful proof: 15 of the top 20 retailers on the Fortune 500 use Helvetica in their main identity or current advertising campaigns.

Nordstrom is one of the few major U.S. retailers not using Helvetica. This is Interstate.


13 Comments on “The Typographic Monotony of American Retail”

  1. Kent Lew says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  8:06 am
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    Sam — This is not to take away from your general (and deserved) rant, but . . .

    JCPenney may indeed be using Helvetica in some places, but they have also been using some custom News Gothic done up for them by James Montalbano. (At least they were last year.)

    (And hey, Walgreens is using bits of Whitman also. Usually shows up in their “There’s a way .&nbsp. .” taglines. You knew that, right?;-)

  2. Kyle Kargov says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  9:29 am
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    And now I understand why my professor would automatically fail us if we used Helvetica.

  3. Chris says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  12:39 pm
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    "Here’s the painful proof: 15 of the top 20 retailers on the Fortune 500 use Helvetica in their main identity or current advertising campaigns"

    Painful proof of what? That successful companies use Helvetica? How is it possible to make the argument that because 15 of the 20 top retailers in the US use Helvetica the buying-public is ready for more thoughtful retail design?

    If anything it proves the opposite, that the buying public chooses retailers and products based on neutrality, familiarity. and comfort - all three of which Helvetica automatically implies.

  4. Sam Berlow says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  1:09 pm
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    Chris, I agree, "neutrality, familiarity. and comfort," are represented well with Helvetica. My comments are purely my own desire to see more interesting typefaces when I stroll the Malls of America. Thanks

  5. Jan 27th, 2011  2:39 pm
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    the buying public chooses retailers and products based on neutrality, familiarity. and comfort

    That's an interesting thought, but I'm not seeing any proof there either. Are they successful because they use Helvetica? There has been very little experimentation with type in mainstream retail since the 1980s, so it's hard to know if Helvetica is used because it works, or simply because it's safe.

    Isn't there something to be said for originality, distinction, newness? If all the shops look the same, how do you identify with one brand over another?

  6. Neil S Patel says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  3:17 pm
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    There certainly is an advantage to a neutral font choice. It makes it easier to produce a variety of marketing materials for different product categories or for different target audiences.

    I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the continual use Helvetica is more of a matter of convenience. The creative departments at these retailers are probably quite efficient at churning out a lot of collateral in a industrialized fashion. It is a lot easier to to stick with a system that works, especially if you already have an established brand.

    That all being said, there are other font choices than Helvetica that are neutral without being sterile.

  7. André Mora says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  3:24 pm
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    how do you identify with one brand over another?

    I think you walk into the store and get the overall sense of the products, signage, uniforms and service.

    I'm definitely all for more varied retail typography, but if Nordstrom used Helvetica, I would never confuse it with the Gap or JCPenny. They've even tried other fonts in their catalogs (which mostly looked like weak layouts of Bazaar).

    Any shopper of Nordstrom knows that the experience in the store is what lasts—and it's why Nordstrom prides itself on customer service beyond all else. Ultimately, when I think of their brand, I think of the classic logo.

    (Now might be a good time to admit that I've worked at Nordstrom flagship store here in Seattle :)

    Also, in regards to the experience within the store, I like to compare Home Depot with Lowe's. I've never paid close attention to either store's typography, but one thing is clear: One store is orange, orange, orange. And the other is blue, blue, blue.

    On a more upbeat note, over the past year I have enjoyed J.Crew's playful type (in catalogs and windows) and their newish sister store, Madewell, has plenty type on the wall (Archer I think)...

  8. Christian Schwartz says:
    Jan 27th, 2011  3:28 pm
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    There is a lot more to branding, and to typography in general, than typeface choice, and I think it's really important to make a distinction from brands that use Helvetica in interesting and distinctive ways (like Target, Gap, and American Apparel) and brands that do not. Helvetica isn't always a bad choice any more than it's always a good choice.

  9. Jan 27th, 2011  3:50 pm
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    Christian, that's a good reminder. Unfortunately, as I was doing the research for the top 20 list I looked at a lot of ads and websites and interiors and I can tell you that most of the brands use Helvetica in very much the same way. You know what you're going to get — thus the "safeness".

  10. Jan 28th, 2011  10:08 am
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    [...] read a post today titled The Typographic Monotony of American Retail on Fonts in Use thanks to recommendations from both Collide Magazine and Church Create. It came as [...]

  11. Chris says:
    Jan 28th, 2011  12:48 pm
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    "Chris, I agree, “neutrality, familiarity. and comfort,” are represented well with Helvetica. My comments are purely my own desire to see more interesting typefaces when I stroll the Malls of America. Thanks"

    Personally, I totally agree - I wasn't necessarily arguing the point of the article, merely questioning the way in which the conclusion was reached.

    "That’s an interesting thought, but I’m not seeing any proof there either. Are they successful because they use Helvetica?"

    Stephen - that's not what I was saying. I was merely pointing out that both conclusions (the original article's, as well as my example) were equally valid, not that either was in fact true.

  12. Mary says:
    Feb 1st, 2011  3:25 pm
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    Perhaps it's intentional and even smart for the companies to stick with Helvetica. Think about how the mall would look with an array of distinct but not complimentary typefaces in their signs. Messy and headache inducing rather than dull and uniform, my guess.

  13. carl says:
    Feb 1st, 2011  5:26 pm
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    I love the discourse about familiarity vs Uniqueness, but really if we wore pants on our heads it isn't "unique" it's "strange" or "crazy". and branding shouldn't be strange or crazy.

    Many of the fortune 500 use Helvetica because it is familiar and easy to read and ultimately the message is more important than the typeface.

    I think as designers too often we get distracted by the choice of typeface, but rarely does a different typeface actually impact the message being sent.

    I love typography, i love clever uses of beautiful type, but I know my customers love selling their stuff, and to do that consumers have to find the process of reading it to be familiar and easy.

    Particularly in the conversation about malls, or any outdoor signage that is viewied in passing and not actually viewed with direct intent. When we pass these kinds of signs we don't read them actively, our brains interpret the shapes and we read them subconsciously. using letter forms that are already recognized (common) makes the unconscious reading process more likely to work. comparatively use of an unrecognized typeface could actually cause people to walk by over and over without ever being aware your store, sign, or special existed.

  14. Obi A. says:
    Feb 1st, 2011  6:18 pm
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    I do a lot of commercial ad work with tight deadlines. I hate to say it, but after reading this article, it actually made me want to use Helvetica a lot more because of the "comfort and familiarity". It may stomp on my creativity, but it will allow me to be more efficient under time constraints when it comes to producing work for the client.

  15. Tiffany Wardle de Sousa says:
    Feb 1st, 2011  9:53 pm
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    The problem, as alluded to by a few, is that the brands are blending together. For instance, The Gap and Target both sell clothing. During the holiday season they were both running a lot of ads. There was one Target commercial that didn't show the logo until the end and I honestly thought it was a Gap ad. Granted it isn't only the type's fault. The shooting styles are similar as well.

  16. Feb 2nd, 2011  9:46 am
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    Thanks David for such analyse, it always help us. I'm pretty sure that by "industry" rather than countries we can reach similar results.

    But in certain way its very good for bespoke font market. Its "easy" to fight against a brand who use Helvetica, as the demonstration is simple and effective: much more than in any others cases when a brand use already a bespoke typeface or a rare and "nice" font.

    (Saying that, I just sold to a major French player in cosmetics a new bespoke typeface to remove Helvetica Neue.)

  17. Chris Gillis says:
    Feb 3rd, 2011  10:26 am
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    Nice analysis and thoughts in this article.

    Most corporations & large retailers you have mentioned here thrive on keeping the status quo well, the status quo. They thrive on appealing to the masses - they need to make and sell huge numbers to make the bottom line - that is why you see such monotony in their branding and type solutions within advertising.

    You do see smaller corporations in a niche market like say RVCA (http://www.rvca.com) pushing the limits of their design and trying to put out a different message through design to appeal to someone that is going against the status quo - or thinks they want to. That's their niche.

    Remember - large corporations and large retailers do not generally have a niche market - they are appealing to the entire market, thus the choice of Helvetica/Arial - that's my take.

  18. Feb 3rd, 2011  7:20 pm
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    I frankly hated the era of funky, stylish typefaces. It's too easy to make a layout look good. Everyone and their brother becomes a designer. Using helvetica, it's familiar, but you have to concentrate much more in getting the idea across. Typeforms become secondary, what they are saying is more important.

  19. Feb 4th, 2011  1:59 pm
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    I find it interesting that designers often assume that a brand should be distinctive. But there are large swaths of America where a distinct visual identity is exactly the opposite of what consumers find attractive.

    In 2010 the most popular colors for cars were gray, black, and white. I think its safe to assume that many of those cars are being driven in American suburbs built of similarly generic American colonial single-family homes. Those cars are probably used to shop at these same-looking retailers, all of which are located on strip malls that look virtually identical in Virginia, New Jersey, California, and Arizona. The people who drive those cars have had the same haircut for twenty or thirty years. They wear the same jeans, khakis and plaid shirts. If the men own suits, they came from Men’s Warehouse or Brooks Brothers. None of them has every watched a John Waters movie other than Hairspray. And they are very happy living this way. They like their boats to remain stable in calm waters.

    Those people want to shop at stores that all look alike. Some of them sit on the boards of the world’s largest retailers. As designers, we ignore those people at our peril.

  20. Feb 4th, 2011  2:30 pm
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    Or we abandon the banal because we know people can handle something more interesting. Apple has had success selling unique design to consumers from every walk of life.

  21. Feb 4th, 2011  7:16 pm
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    Just because people can handle banal does not mean that banality should not be used to manipulate and exploit consumers for commercial gain. If there’s an audience for the banal retail experience then exploiting that market is responsible business. Further, operating a bland retail old guard makes the other brands operated by the same businesses appear more interesting in comparison.

    Macy’s, one of the offenders listed above, also operates the more fashionable and youthful Bloomingdale’s. Likewise, The Gap owns at least five newer and less dull brands. Abercrombie & Fitch, Williams-Sonoma, Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters all develop and destroy new retail experiences carefully targeted to demographics that will appreciate them. These corporations have become experts at using visual identity to generate profits, and if banal visuals really had no place in commerce they would have been ditched by now.

  22. Edward says:
    Feb 20th, 2011  5:58 am
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    I miss Serifs.

  23. Mar 5th, 2011  5:42 pm
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    in general, I find the arrangement of space of greatest mportance, and the particulars of what fills it less so

  24. Gnak says:
    Mar 26th, 2011  7:42 pm
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    Apple has had success selling unique design to consumers from every walk of life.

    And yet they do it with the very safe and familiar Myriad. ;)

  25. Sam Berlow says:
    Mar 31st, 2011  10:59 am
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    Gnak, Helvetica and all of her offspring, have a major place in design, as do many fonts we consider “familiar”: Interstate, Frutiger, Gotham, Meta, Myriad, DIN – all great families. It is the monotony I am concerned with, not familiarity.

    If all airports used Frutiger, I would make the same observation (as Stephen has and will): monotony. I like the idea of landing in an airport and seeing type that identifies a country, or driving from France to Germany and seeing the road signs change, or walking from Macy's to the Gap and, well maybe not …

  26. J. M. K. says:
    May 22nd, 2013  2:15 am
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    Wow, I can’t believe I arrived here so late. But since I’m here…

    I think the whole issue as mentioned by several has to do with “familiarity” vs “uniqueness” or “safety” vs “identity.”

    I think it’s a case-by-case situation and we can’t really generalize about font usage but it does make me miss spotting a single letter and being able to recognize it.

    logo_alphabet

    Today, if we were to greyscale the letters and make something like this with the similar arial/helvetica typefaces, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell which brand the letters came from.

    I think it’s just kinda saddening from an emotional point of view.

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