Why Do Designers Love Helvetica?

by Shane Carmody

A designers typeface by default. It’s clean and efficient, yet beautiful in its minimalist form. Chances are you probably see it on a daily basis. But why are designers so “obsessed” with this font? Why is it used so frequently? You have to admire Helvetica’s longevity, no matter how many new typefaces arrive on the scene, Helvetica is still standing strong. There must be a reason.

As a 6-year-old I was the slowest writer in my class. We were charged with drawing every letter of the alphabet, in both upper and lowercase, in our copybooks. I would draw each letter with pathological precision, obsessively making sure the circles in my lowercase a’s were perfectly spherical and that my uppercase A’s were rigid and flawlessly symmetrical.

Mad Men poster

Since then, my writing has degenerated so much that its as if I captured a spider, dipped his legs in ink and forced him to scramble around the page of my copybook. Being candid, my writing is no longer legible. That’s why I cringe when I see a font which is so similar to my handwriting. Indecipherable. A novelty font. Helvetica is not only a beautiful font but it is extremely legible. It encompasses so many other qualities and characteristics which make it such a celebrated typeface.

I was very much aware when writing some notes for this post that Helvetica is a very frequently used font. I was trying to put together a list of where you might see the font – shop fronts, billboards… I struggled for more. How could I not see something that’s everywhere! I glanced at the spine of the book I was leaning on… fucking hell, there it is… Helvetica. I look up. A poster. Helvetica. I look left. A canister of deodorant. Helvetica. I look right. A wall. No Helvetica this time, but you get the point. It’s everywhere.

Helvetica street sign

If you look really hard at any street signs (you won’t have to look hard) you will notice that they use Helvetica. Even warning or danger signs. A more expressive font may alarm people. Maybe people would pay more attention. This is how you get your brand to stand out. Don’t use Helvetica. Actually, do use Helvetica! Your brand will stand out more… I’m confused? Opinion is divided on whether you should or you shouldn’t (of course it depends on the project) but the scales are tipped in Helveticas favor. A huge amount of respect has to be given to a font which has remained popular for the last 54 years.

So lets talk a little about the history of Helvetica.

Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann in 1957, at the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland. The typeface, in its original form was called Neue Haas Grotesk. This was deemed inappropriate for a font which was expected to be exported to the USA. Originally, it was proposed that the font be called Helvetia, which is the Latin word for Switzerland. This was rejected, as it seemed absurd naming a typeface after a country. Eventually, the name Helvetica (meaning Swiss) was adopted and so it became the Swiss Typeface. Which is why you might see the font used with a red and white color scheme (see tsuzu-nee‘s poster below).

Helvetica Poster by tsuzu-nee

If you’re familiar with the TV show Mad Men, then you’re probably familiar with the stereotypical adverts of the early 1950’s. A father in his armchair next to a roaring fire sucking on a cigarette, a mother fetching a drink she prepared for her husband, and their children gazing up at their father in wonder and awe. With a ridiculous slogan spouting from the father’s mouth, something along the lines of – “Gosh darling, what would our lives be like without Lucky Strike.” You’ve seen them, if not have a look at the one below.

Winston Ad

Don’t they make your stomach turn. There is nothing remotely cool or sophisticated about the advert but the reason I’m I bring this up is that this was what was popular before Helvetica arrived.

Helvetica was like a rock‘n’roll band bursting onto the scene just as people were beginning to grow tired of the stale pop songs which lacked so much depth. It was like the grunge music of the early 1990’s. Nirvana were the prime example. They changed the way people dressed, spoke and thought. All with their music. They affected things. Much like Helvetica affected graphic design. It was groundbreaking. It changed everything.

In the 1960’s rebranding a corporate identity was a simple matter of changing the company typeface to Helvetica. This, expressed the companies true sophisticated personality. I’m exaggerating, but there is some element of truth to what I’m saying. Helvetica became popular… really popular. It was sophisticated, it was clean, it was neutral and it was particularly versatile. Almost like a paradox, Helvetica could be powerful, intense, passionate whilst at the same time being all of the antonyms.

Adjustments to the kerning, increasing the font weight, changing the colour, et cetera, et cetera. These were all factors which could provoke different emotional responses. Going back to my earlier analogy of rock‘n’roll and grunge bands, when an influential band comes along and are a solitary voice representing a generation, it’s inevitable that everyone else will begin saying “I’ll just do that, that’s cool these days.”

Helvetica became predictable, familiar and dull. As Spiekermann remarked &mdash it became the default. The obvious choice. The easy way out. The font was used carelessly and it went from being cool to being routine and uninteresting.

Coca-Cola

A typeface is not a fraction of a word. Letters make up a word, a typeface expresses a mood or atmosphere. The distinctive Coca-Cola logo uses an elegant cursive script which appeals for demands the attention of young generations. If any other word were written with that particular font you would still think of Coca-Cola. What if the logo was written in Helvetica?

Coca-Cola (in Helvetica)

Looks shit. You still know the name, but it takes longer to recognise. That’s how much influence a typeface can have. It can transform logo into something vibrant and fun. A typeface has a particular personality and certain characteristics. But Helvetica doesn’t seem to subscribe to this theory. It isn’t bound or restricted.

The Helvetica we see today is very different from the Helvetica which existed in 1957. Alot of time has been invested in gradually improving the Helvetica typeface and making it into what many would deem perfect. Erik Spiekermann spoke in the 2007 documentary Helvetica about Microsoft. He described them as “despicable” for trying to imitate Helvetica with Arial.

The story goes that Microsoft hired a company in Britain to make a typeface which was the same as Helvetica only… different. Why did they do this? Because they didn’t want to pay the licence fee. Unfortunately for Microsoft, Arial could never be as good as Helvetica. Never. In so many peoples eyes Helvetica was and is flawless.

Web Designers are becoming more and more engrossed with web typography by the day (partly thanks to the CSS3 @font-face property). A look at Font Squirrel gives you just a preview of what is available for the designer. Designers now have the ability to choose from thousands of free fonts from across the web. Regardless, Helvetica is still the king.

The key for designers is how they use Helvetica. Being neutral is one of its most favorable characteristics. This allows the font to be versatile and give it a range that many fonts can never achieve (think of our much maligned friend Comic Sans MS). I don’t intend to personify fonts but if Helvetica were at a party it would be the most popular, the most hated, the most fun, the least fun, the best dancer, the worst dancer. It could literally be anything.

It’s this ability that makes you wonder — will there ever be another font so close to perfection? Which can help the designer in so many situations. Which can give the designer so much power and choice.

Helvetica. The designers Swiss army knife.

23 Comments

  1. nadia dubrovic

    hi there,
    just letting you know that the street signs etc etc don’t use Helvetica. They use a font called Johnson

    :)

    • Shane Carmody

      Hi Nadia,

      Interesting, I see alot of street signs everywhere I go that use Helvetica. I even compare pictures. I’m sure not every street sign in the world uses Helvetica though ;) Is it Johnson or Johnston (looking at the Wikipedia entry for that).

      Thanks for keeping me informed.

    • Chris Z

      I’ve loved Helvetica way more than Arial. I think you (or whoever made the picture) missed some letters. There’s difference between (I’ll only mention the missed-out letters):
      1. Uppercase “C”
      2. Uppercase “J”
      3. Uppercase “S”
      4. Lowercase “c”
      5. Lowercase “e”
      6. Lowercase “g”
      7. Lowercase “j”
      8. Lowercase “s”
      9. Number “2″, “3″ and “5″

      As you know, I’m a die hard fan of Helvetica, so spotting differences like this would be easy to me.

  2. Nelly Matorina

    This is a funny concept! I never really noticed this phenomenon until I started pinning on pinterest, and it seems that designers are very passionate about both using this font, and talking about how much they love it!

  3. David

    I can’t argue against the fact that Helvetica is very popular, but I think it’s funny a blog post praising Helvetica isn’t written in Helvetica (it’s not even a sans-serif font).

    Personally, I cringe every time a font is used where a lowercase l and an uppercase I are nearly indistinguishable (among other characters). It is possible to be elegant, simple, and slick, and without sacrificing functionality.

    P.S. You have a funny typo in your blog post: “&mdash”. You’re missing a semicolon.

    • Shane Carmody

      Just because I praised Helvetica doesn’t mean I have to use it everywhere. Anyway it’s not my favorite font. But nevertheless I appreciate it for what it is.

      I choose fonts based on what they contribute to the design.

Agree or disagree?

Whatever your opinion is I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment below.

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