The Great Helvetica Debate

With an entire documentary, and multiple books under its’ belt, it’s safe to say Helvetica has some avid fans. It’s very modern and somewhat ‘neutral’ feel has left our commercial world riddled with this typeface. But not everyone is so pleased with this popular font. In an article of Smashing Magazine, Alastair Johnston depicts the typography as very unpleasing, quoting;

“The letters are square and squat and don’t communicate with their neighbors. … There is more internal space in the counters than around the words, creating ugly and standoffish silhouettes.”

So what’s the BFD about Helvetica? How is it so popular? And how can a typeface cause so much passionate controversy?

Created in a Swiss town, the typeface was born with the intention of having a new look while still being very legible and neutral. When released in 1957, this unique and modern sans serif couldn’t have been published at a better time. Photography and illustration were on the rise, and the world was in need of a font to be a quiet voice, that didn’t conflict with the imagery. The answer for most became Helvetica. In fact, I don’t think the design world wasn’t prepared for how prominent this font would become. And to showcase its ubiquity, the gallery below is popular companies who use Helvetica in their logo. 

Type Neutrality?

One of the font’s biggest appeals, is its attempts at ‘neutrality’.  So, what does it mean to be a neutral typeface?  Put simply, a neutral typeface is one where it does not interfere or distract from other design elements.  And personally, I believe there is no such thing as a totally neutral typeface. The ability for a font to be compatible with any context is impractical. Every font has a use, where it can be neutral, but that is decided upon in its’ context. Unfortunately, this concept of its consistent and inherit neutrality, has led to its overuse. But what really is different about Helvetica compared to other sans serifs?

Comparing Helvetica

To compare designs, we’re going to jump back to the year of 1957. With a similar goal of a neutral sans serif typeface, avoiding artistic excesses, the font Univers makes its appearance. If we compare the look of Helvetica to Univers, we see the unique choices of the both typefaces – but this exert is focused on Helvetica’s uniqueness in comparison.

Some have said the type lacks a certain rhythm, because of its use of negative space and tight fitting of letters. This is well demonstrated in the comparison above. Its base width of some letters (red) are much smaller than Univers – leaving Helvetica’s ‘A’ to look tighter, and almost constricted.  What follows suit to this, is the amount of natural kerning the letters are given (green). With such a small amount of negative space between letters, it can be harder to read in small text, and may be a large advocacy for certain distaste. Another factor you’ll also notice, is that most openings to letters also have smaller amounts of space in gaps (like the ‘C’ shown in blue). Conversely, Helvetica generally allows for more negative space within letters. This is quite obvious inside the ‘B’ above, where the widths have a whopping 6 pixel difference (in orange). The most notable distinction to me, is the use of decoration on the lowercase ‘a’. 

So now that we know a little more about Helvetica and its role as a sans serif – so the real question is, why all the controversy?

This typeface is EVERYWHERE. A lot of what you see in print is Helvetica, whether you realize it or not. Its claims of ‘neutrality’ may not be completely true, but it is one of the easiest modern typography approaches to advertising today. Helvetica has its uses, but just like most things, it shouldn’t be used for everything. And that is its biggest downfall: wrongful use/overuse.

Designers now see this 60 year old typeface as ‘safe’ and predictable. Most even talk very negatively about its unique traits. While it’s somewhat strange use of negative space can be a little off-putting, I think it’s a great font when used properly. But time has seemingly worn on this font, where a designer can’t look at it without feeling like they’ve seen it a thousand times before. Put simply, I think Helvetica has been tainted by its popularity. The worst part: Helvetica has its uses! Designer snobs throw their noses in the air when it’s used by peers, while commissioners are most likely to call your design ‘unadventurous’ if it is featured.

Do you think Helvetica still has a place in modern typography? Or has it worn out its welcome?