Inter is the new Helvetica

Yesterday I had to do something in Figma after a hiatus and so I got to see Inter again, and because of the break, anew, when I created a new file.

Just a few hours ago though, I’d come across an (otherwise simple and unadorned) blog that I thought had been exceptionally impactful in its typography, and together these two thoughts clicked.

That blog, I recognized as I stared at the text in Figma, had been using Inter. As I sat pondering there awhile, one thought led to another, and I realized: Inter is the new Helvetica.

As I kid I’d never quite liked Arial, but that was the font that came with Windows, and that was the universe I lived in back then. Verdana too was meh, though in a slightly different way. And I thought to myself - Manav, all sans serif fonts look the same: bland, corporate ligatures.

But that’s what I thought I thought — subconsciously I felt the differences between them. I know this, because I used to find something primally appealing in the images of New York that I would see in movies or on Flickr or other places on the internet. Back then I thought the “primal” appeal was because it was “New York”, but now I know the thing which appealed to me in those images was not the city, but the font used in the lettering of its subway boards: Helvetica.

I didn’t know the name Helvetica back then, nor did I know that it was the thing which made random photos of the NYC subway look attractive. All this I figured later. The point of this anecdote being – Helvetica was a disproportionately impactful font. Black text on a white, or white text on black, or any color you like; it didn’t matter, as long as the lettering was in Helvetica, you would get your point across.

I say was, because over the years Helvetica has stopped biting the same. This is just because of over-exposure to it. The font hasn't changed, it is I who am no longer as wide eyed.

Inter gives me that same feeling again.

Typeset anything in Inter, and you may manage to make it look bad, but you’ll still manage to get your point across.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying (nor do I feel) that Helvetica and Inter are the only two good fonts around. No. There are lots of great fonts. I recently made a simple 12 x 5 dot matrix pixel display in p5.js, and in doing so, realized two things:

  • Creating glyphs that retain legibility is hard, but
  • The design space is huge!

Moving even a single pixel from here to there changes the vibe. As is often the case, where there is a hard problem with a huge design space, the artist has the upper hand over the engineer. And the many font artists among us come up with great looking fonts, too many to enumerate. If you’re rich and want to brand, it’s easy - just buy exclusive rights to a great font.

Where Helvetica, and now, Inter, are unique is in their universal appeal. Which is rather imprudent of me to say, who am I know what appeals to the entire universe? But maybe you understand the point I’m trying to make with the phrase “universal appeal”. This is not a stand out appeal, it is a simpler, more direct appeal that makes the font disappear and lets only the words themselves remain, facilitating communication with a broad set of people.

When I was I kid I didn’t know one day I’d write a long letter in praise of a font, and a sans serif one at that, but here I am.

Manav Rathi
Jan 2024