If you’re in the design industry, it’s instantly assumed that you’re a ‘font guy’. There are the usual clichés that you’re expected to subscribe to: Helvetica is awesome; Comic Sans is terrible; and there is bad kerning everywhere. Perhaps all true, but you could argue that if the whole world was filled with beautifully designed and perfectly kerned typography, everything will start to look the same.
My fiancée bought me the Helvetica film for Christmas – a 2007 indie documentary by Gary Hustwit. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Could I really sit through 80 minutes of Swiss typeface designers adjusting their expensive spectacles and twiddling their moustaches? Thankfully it was so much more than that. In fact, it’s the best documentary I’ve seen in some time.
There was no shortage of opinions from well-respected graphic artists and type designers such as Massimo Vignelli, Paula Scher and, my personal favourite, David Carson.
The film did well to explore the bold history of the font which, believe it or not, is now way over half a century old. But it also offered some diverse and challenging opinions from modern-day heavyweights – opinions not far from my own…
What is so great about Helvetica; if not Helvetica, what else; and just how prominent is Helvetica?
To answer that last question, it really is EVERYWHERE. Helvetica’s success is down to its legibility, versatility and its diverse range of weights – from Ultra Light all the way through to Black. Helvetica adorns street signs, council notices, public transport systems, government paperwork… not to mention thousands of brands, large and small, that have adopted it as part of their logo.
As a designer, you always want to rebel. You want to produce something different. Something that will get you noticed. Where’s the fun in doing what everybody else is doing? I spent my early years pushing out gig flyers covered in distressed, grungy fonts. These were often for distressed, grungy brands, so it kind of worked. But in hindsight those fonts were just awful and often unreadable. Par for the course, right?
The latter part of the film zooms in on this conundrum – how do you stand out from the crowd when you know for certain that your company name WILL look awesome in Helvetica Bold, in crisp black ink on bright white stock. New York’s subway network uses Helvetica because Helvetica works. Imagine trying to find your way around Manhattan by following unreadable signs in a novelty font. Maddening.
The onus is on us, the designers, to ensure that (a) we select the right typeface for the job and (b) we treat it right. When was the last time you saw a beautifully designed kebab shop sign? Probably never. The problem isn’t the typeface. It’s what the designer has done with the typeface. Helvetica, however, is quite forgiving.
“Any good typeface can be completely destroyed when misused or extensively overused. Helvetica seemed to sustain a beating like no other.”
— Alexander Gelman
But if your local council is using it on their ‘No ball games’ signs, is it really going to be the first font you try when designing a logo?
“If you have no intuitive sense of design, then call yourself an “information architect” and only use Helvetica.”
— David Carson
We could debate this for hours and still struggle to settle on exactly where Helvetica sits in our modern, design-led world. But I’ll leave you with this thought: it’s a beautiful typeface in the hands of the right designer. We mustn’t be afraid to use something because it’s been used a hundred times before. If Helvetica works for you and for your client, there are a thousand things you can do to differentiate it from a ‘No ball games’ sign or the Microsoft logo. That is our job, and surely why we do what we do.