I’m sick of Helvetica. I’m sick of it being used ironically, and I’m sick of it being used genuinely. There is no doubt about the fact that it is an absolutely beautiful typeface. It is considered by many to be the most perfect typeface ever designed. It is certainly the most well known typeface ever designed, thanks mostly to the fact that it comes pre-installed on pretty much any computer you can buy these days. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a graphic designer that would go as far as to say it is ugly or badly designed, but you will most certainly find designers with negative feelings toward Helvetica.
Some of those designers are featured in the 2007 documentary, appropriately named “Helvetica”. The film oozes respect for the typeface, and features a few old school Helvetica loyalists like Massimo Vignelli, but also checks in with Paula Scher who goes as far as to half-jokingly blame Helvetica for the Vietnam War. But most modern designers fall in between those two extremes. Among these moderates is Jonathan Hoefler (a personal favorite type designer of mine), who says that trying to talk about Helvetica is like being asked to discuss off-white paint.
The point the film eventually makes is that Helvetica is essentially a beautiful, but neutral typeface. It is a font that you just don’t notice. That is precisely why the old school designers liked it. They believed that the message is in the content, not in the typeface. That the typography should be clear and readable, and should not be noticed. Massimo Vignelli says “There are people that think that type should be expressive…They have a different point of view from mine. I don’t think type should be expressive at all…I can write the word ‘dog’ with any type face and it doesn’t have to look like a dog, but there are people that think when you write the word ‘dog’—it should bark”. To me, that is like saying that any time anyone speaks they should talk in a clear, but monotonous voice, because the message is in their words, not how the emphasis they are putting on the words. It is ridiculous. Of course type should be expressive. Not all type should be set in script, or some grungy font, but any typeface you choose contains a personality, and that personality has a huge effect on the content.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is most definitely a time and place for Helvetica. In fact, I use it on an almost-daily basis, but I almost always use it in blocks of type, or to compliment another typeface that is being used more prominently. The place where it really annoys me is when people use it for corporate identities. Why would you want to use a typeface that lacks all personality as your corporate identity? What are you saying about your company? That you are like everyone else? Now, I suppose it does say that you are a no-nonsense, efficient entity. It is kind like Steve Jobs wearing a black turtleneck and jeans every day. He is basically saying ‘I have more important things to spend my time on than fashion’. Using Helvetica as your corporate identity is like saying ‘we have more important things to spend our money on that having a cute logo, just set our company name in Helvetica and let’s get back to work’. And an amazing amount of big companies use Helvetica as their company logo. And every time, you get absolutely no idea what the company does or what their attitude is. For example:
Do they really express anything about these companies? Maybe a little. Some of them use all caps, some of them use italics, some of them use color to provide just a little bit of personality. But how about when you take the color away?
Now they are really dispassionate. David Carson, former Art Director at Raygun magazine and arguably the most famous participant of the typographic ‘grunge’ movement in the 80′s and 90′s, is shown in the Helvetica documentary with a variety of expressive words set in black Helvetica to point out exactly how unexpressive it is.
Of course, some of this is simply a result of overuse. Any time something is overused, it becomes less effective. The first people to use Flash in their websites may have made a big impact, but now it is everywhere, and it just either just fades into the background or leads people to search for the ‘skip animation’ button. But in the case of Helvetica, I think it is more that it is being abused so regularly. It is the typeface of choice for anyone that doesn’t care what typeface is being used, so it is usually being used poorly. It is kind of like how nobody considers skateboarding a real sport, because for every Tony Hawk, there are 1,000 local kids falling off their boards over and over in every town square in America. Perhaps Erik Spiekermann summed it up best in the Helvetica documentary when he said “Most people who use Helvetica use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food…’cause it’s there…it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner”.
Thankfully, it looks as though Gotham is gaining ground on Helvetica. Most people noticed it for the first time in the Obama presidential campaign. You know, all of those posters that said “HOPE”? That’s Gotham. It is a fantastic typeface, maybe even the best typeface designed since Helvetica, but it has just that hint of friendliness to it. Then again, maybe someone will be writing a blog 50 years from now about how sick they are of Gotham…