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Helvetica: Love It or Hate It

Jul 5, 2012

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

A lively debate was sparked in the graphic design community last week when the University of the Arts London left their playful, skewed logo behind in favor of a serious and simple Helvetica treatment. The all-Helvetica approach had Armin Vit, whose slightly addictive blog critiques newly redesigned logos, rolling his eyes. In a blog post titled, The University of the Arts London Logo, or Why I Hate Helvetica,” he writes, “Helvetica is the worst possible choice in serious identity design in the twenty-first century.” Harsh words, especially considering that Helvetica is one of the most popular fonts used today.

Helvetica is the product of the height of the Modernist era in design. It was created in 1957 by Max Miedinger as a universal font that could be applied and used in almost any format. Throughout the 1960s, transit systems and large corporations adopted the typeface, hoping that such clear, legible letterforms would stimulate international business growth. Before the rise of the home computers, Helvetica was a word confined to the studios of graphic designers. Now, anyone with access to a computer has seen and selected Helvetica while typing a document.

Vit notes that the biggest argument in support of Helvetica is that it’s neutral, but how could anything be neutral when there are films, posters, tattoos and even scarves dedicated to its very existence? Helvetica must carry some meaning, or else it wouldn’t resonate with the thousands of people who buy tributes to the uber-modern typeface.

In my opinion, all typefaces have connotations. Futura, another popular sans serif typeface, brings to mind Wes Anderson, who has used it consistently throughout his films (save for the recent Moonrise Kingdom). The fat, controlled strokes of blackletter typefaces conjure images of monks hand-lettering illuminated manuscripts. Times New Roman is, and always will be, associated with the smudged ink on my fingers after reading the newspaper.

When I see Helvetica, I immediately think of American Apparel and the rise of hipster culture. I also think of American Airlines, Crate & Barrel, and Toyota. Helvetica is truly a work of typographic art to be cherished and praised for its contribution to graphic design and literacy, and it will continue to have its fans and detractors. But for the first time, I think it’s starting to show its age.

Do you think Helvetica is neutral? Is it timeless?

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3 Featured Comments

  • mfairley

    M Fairley from MFairleyDesign said 4 years ago Featured

    Helvetica is a well-designed font--consistent and balanced. Whether it works depends on how you use it. It mixes well with many serif fonts and has plenty of weights. I am not using it much these days, but who knows when it may the just the right font for a particular project.

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 4 years ago Featured

    I am a big fan of Helvetica Neue. I love its versatility. In Thin, it's like springtime. In Black, it's your bad dad. And like Switzerland itself, it's neutral in the sense that it does not carry the historical associations -- many of them imperialistic -- of other European typefaces. In use, it succeeds or fails entirely as a function of a designer's wit and skill, and therefore I think it's a wonderful test of talent and imagination. OK, I love it.

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 4 years ago Featured

    It's obviously a well-designed, versatile and much-loved typeface. It is also very common. So, I would have to agree that it doesn't seem to be a good choice for identity design, especially for an art school, where you would think they would want something non-conformist and to appear anything but neutral.

69 comments

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    I like Helvetica, but I'm more drawn to fonts like Futura - I prefer their lighter less bold style. There's a place for Helvetica in the world though : )

  • lovelyfeverboutique

    Jessica from LovelyFever said 4 years ago

    I have never thought that Helvetica was an attractive font to use. I suppose it is basic and neutral to a certain degree, but its overuse makes it boring--especially in company and organization logos.

  • LineaLina

    Susanne Major from LineaLina said 4 years ago

    That was interesting. Thank you! Isn't it amazing that simple things like fonts have a whole story behind them?! I think Helvetica is really ageless.

  • mudintheUSA

    mudintheUSA from mudintheUSA said 4 years ago

    Helvetica is nice in its place, but I still like serifs!?!

  • EmiliaFaith

    Edie Ann from OhHoneyHush said 4 years ago

    I LOVE it!

  • EmiliaFaith

    Edie Ann from OhHoneyHush said 4 years ago

    Timeless for sure.

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 4 years ago

    It's neutral for me.

  • KohnDesigns

    Carol Kohn from KohnDesigns said 4 years ago

    Fantastic, original scarf. Love it!

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 4 years ago

    Helvetica is fine with me! As long as I can read the words, I'm satisfied. I do wish Moonrise Kingdom was playing here in the middle of nowhere Illinois, I will have to wait for it to come out on DVD. :(

  • ESTATENOW

    VINTAGE NOW from ESTATENOW said 4 years ago

    Beautiful Idea..

  • twohanddesign

    twohanddesign from twohanddesign said 4 years ago

    so boring- it's the only font I'm allowed to use at work. Anything with a serif , I'm told, is "unprofessional".

  • rmpete

    Reena said 4 years ago

    The scarf is awesome! I am not a real big fan of Helvetica, I have always considered it pretty boring. But there is something to be said for tradition and if it works for you....Enjoy! Who would've thought a font had a whole story of its own!

  • jmayoriginals

    jean from jmayoriginals said 4 years ago

    it's just a font. *shrug* great scarf, though!

  • mfairley

    M Fairley from MFairleyDesign said 4 years ago Featured

    Helvetica is a well-designed font--consistent and balanced. Whether it works depends on how you use it. It mixes well with many serif fonts and has plenty of weights. I am not using it much these days, but who knows when it may the just the right font for a particular project.

  • studiorandom

    Dana Seilhan from studiorandom said 4 years ago

    I have done some hobby web design. My typical habit is to use a sans-serif for paragraph fonts, but I'll offer the browser three choices: Helvetica, Verdana, and then generic sans-serif, pushing the browser into choosing whatever its default sans-serif happens to be. And then I'll use something different for the headline tags (h1, h2, etc.). The sans-serif in the paragraphs is easier on the eyes than serif font (i.e., Times New Roman), and it being boring in that application doesn't matter because the look isn't really the point. I'm not sure why these fonts are a fad; I suppose it takes all kinds.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    It depends onwhether you're designing something to look nice or to be clear & easily read. Maybe Helvetica wouldn't be the first choice for wedding invitations, but for instructions on fire extinguishers it's ideal.

  • VintageEye

    VintageEye from VintageEye said 4 years ago

    I tend to pick fonts based on my mood. I am feeling Biondi today. Yesterday was very Matisse. ;)

  • VoleedeMoineaux
  • CougarTShirtCompany

    Cougar T-Shirt Company from CougarTShirtCompany said 4 years ago

    This is something I have never considered. I remember it being hard to find a font for Cougar T-Shirt Company. Helvetica seems so standard, a font for adults.

  • fieldtrip

    Amy from fieldtrip said 4 years ago

    I'm a fan of Helvetica but I prefer some of it's variants - they have more pop!

  • StringBeardCraftery

    Stephanie from StringBeardCraftery said 4 years ago

    There's a really cool documentary about, and titled "Helvetica" that's really cool!

  • InJoyEmporium

    Orah Diemer from InJoyEmporium said 4 years ago

    Love Fonts...Word shapes are something I consider in my fiberart. There is an inherit structure that compels me to a word or not...but didn't know about the more global discussion! Trebuchet MS is my current everyday fav...I will think more about fonts now.....if I don't already spend too much time "there"! :)

  • StonetreeJewelry

    Zoe from StonetreeJewelry said 4 years ago

    A really interesting read! Thanks Chappell! Although I'm not drawn to it, Helvetica doesn't turn me away and I love a clean, minimal aesthetic.

  • ScratchMade

    Kristy from ScratchMade said 4 years ago

    “Helvetica is the worst possible choice in serious identity design in the twenty-first century.” "Comic Sans" was awarded that title years ago and will continue to reign!

  • StrangelyYours

    Lorraine and Glenn from StrangelyYours said 4 years ago

    Its known as our "safety font" in design school... I love it though, its a safety font for a reason :)

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 4 years ago Featured

    I am a big fan of Helvetica Neue. I love its versatility. In Thin, it's like springtime. In Black, it's your bad dad. And like Switzerland itself, it's neutral in the sense that it does not carry the historical associations -- many of them imperialistic -- of other European typefaces. In use, it succeeds or fails entirely as a function of a designer's wit and skill, and therefore I think it's a wonderful test of talent and imagination. OK, I love it.

  • GemmaBeads

    Misty from Gemmabeads said 4 years ago

    Always reminds me of the first generic foods packages.

  • dootsie

    dootsie said 4 years ago

    "Now, anyone with access to a computer has seen and selected Helvetica while typing a document." Nope.

  • randomarticle

    randomarticle from randomarticle said 4 years ago

    I love Helvetica, but I think it's like any font--it has to be right for its context. It makes me especially sad to see it used when it just isn't right for the application, since I do like it.

  • QueenofCuffs

    mary from QueenofCuffs said 4 years ago

    The 'Helvetica' debate will go on for as long as . . . well as Helvetica !! As a graphic designer for decades I have 'used it to death' - I have loved it, fallen out of love with it, renewed my vows to it . . . If I had to call it - I'd say classic.

  • JillianReneDecor

    Jillian Carmine from JillianReneDecor said 4 years ago

    What an interesting read! Thanks Chappell! Helvetica is a neutral to me, but I'm personally more drawn to Futura. Overall, I think it's all about context - text can make it or break it.

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 4 years ago

    Love the scarf!

  • NightLightDesigns

    Erin from NightLightDesigns said 4 years ago

    I have somewhat bad connotations with helvetica, because I work with a very difficult client whose signature font is helvetica! But, on the basis of the font alone, I do like the clean lines and the simpleness of it. It's not my go-to font, but I appreciate what it offers.

  • ForeverInTransition

    Elizabeth Wakefield from ForeverInTransition said 4 years ago

    I think there has to be something said for the fact that Helvetica can spark a debate and that alone makes it's existence worthwhile. Although, I would like to state that just because something is popular, doesn't mean it's not neutral. In fact, I think that's why it's so popular. Personally, I'm quite ambivilant to the font. (I'm more of a Century Gothic girl) If anyone is really interested, there's a nice little documentary on the font that covers everything from how it was created and why and the controversy behind it (from those that love it and others who think it represents right-wing thinking and war. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0847817/

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    Helvetica is a classic and has its place but there's room in the graphic world for all the fonts. Can't we all just get along? Even Comic Sans has its uses (oooooo, did I hear groans?) Ran across this great music (?) video called "Neutra Face : An Ode On A Typeface" http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xHCu28bfxSI#! Very funny.

  • TheBrassHussy

    Debbie Roberson-Brown from TheBrassHussy said 4 years ago

    interesting, I never would have thought there would be such a lively discussion about a font. lol Being a person that couldn't even name 10 fonts, my opinion is that this font has a very bold, modern appeal to it. I don't see it as timeless or neutral at all.

  • imogenskyefreeman

    Imogen Skye Freeman from InkPaintings said 4 years ago

    I read the linked article by Vit, and the comments are especially hilarious. I am more of a fan of older-style typefaces like Garamond. I am always dismayed when I can't use Garamond because it doesn't suit the application. I don't find the sans serif typefaces to be neutral; they have a certain, very cold and sterile feeling to them, but for me, cold and sterile is not neutral; it's cold and sterile. ;) This is not to say that I dislike them; they have their purpose, and when I was doing commercial design, I used them when I thought they fit the application. But for a personally aesthetically pleasing and comfortable typeface, Garamond is it for me- like an old book. :)

  • imogenskyefreeman

    Imogen Skye Freeman from InkPaintings said 4 years ago

    Oh! And I've been admiring that scarf for as long as I've known about it. Certainly a cold-feeling typeface can be warmed up!!! Beautiful.

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 4 years ago Featured

    It's obviously a well-designed, versatile and much-loved typeface. It is also very common. So, I would have to agree that it doesn't seem to be a good choice for identity design, especially for an art school, where you would think they would want something non-conformist and to appear anything but neutral.

  • sarahkdesigns

    Sarah from sarahkdesigns said 4 years ago

    When I see Helvetica, I think of Kabel and Century Gothic — which took everything one step further design-wise and fixed the lowercase letter "a." The "upper terminal" is a bastion of a bygone era. Simply put - no one who writes the "letter a" adds the upper terminal. That no standard font under the sun has caught up to the modernity of handwriting is kind of idiotic. I say this to you as someone named Sarah. Upper terminals on lowercase a's? No. Fonts are expressive, they denote tone, style, and a plethora of other characteristics... readability is also a factor. When I see Helvetica — I see that modern design got most of the way there, but tripped on a couple of details... and then someone came along and designed Kabel and Century Gothic. But I also enjoy those big faceless brick monoliths popularized by 1960's and 1970's style architecture. To each their own.

  • wheatleypaperworks

    M Wheatley from wheatleypaperworks said 4 years ago

    Who hates a typeface? So silly! Thanks for the article.

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 from breadandroses2 said 4 years ago

    I'm still most of the good old school serif type of font. I'm sure it has a name.

  • imogenskyefreeman

    Imogen Skye Freeman from InkPaintings said 4 years ago

    Sarah, I completely agree with you about the upper terminal in "a". It's such a strange thing when my children were/are learning how to write I always have to add in the typeface "a" when when they ask me to demonstrate lower-case letters because that is what they see and recognise in books. And I see it turn up in their hand-written stories here and there. On the other hand (lol), I actually enjoy the look of the upper terminal, but you're right; it is archaic. :)

  • everythingok

    everythingok from everythingok said 4 years ago

    The funny thing about Helvetica, for me, is that it brings to mind first the NYC transit system, and second, the generic, yellow No Name store brand packaging in Loblaws-brand supermarkets. I think they're both iconic and beautiful in their stark, bold simplicity. I think Helvetica is a gorgeous font when applied correctly, but as the logo for UAL: snooze. In this context, it isn't iconic, it's forgettable. It doesn't really look like a logo at all to me. Perhaps because of the strong associations Helvetica has with New York City, I have a hard time as seeing it associated with London as well. The font used in the old logo, on the other hand, feels quintessentially modern London to me, even if the little asterisks and the way the letters were set playfully askew seems a bit silly. I just want to take my rotate tool and right them! But the new tote bags and course calendars literally do look like they were made by American Apparel. Can someone with some free time and design credentials please just take all UAL's new things, keep the layouts, but reinstate the old font? I'd be chuffed to bits if you did. I'll even bake you a basket of muffins.

  • everythingok

    everythingok from everythingok said 4 years ago

    (Pee ess. I sometimes handwrite lowercase a, upper terminal and all. Am I a horrid anachronism?)

  • GoldenSpiralDesigns

    Lola Ocian from GoldenSpiralDesigns said 4 years ago

    Fascinating stuff! Check out the documentary by the same name - it's illuminating and inspiring!

  • buttagal

    LC from cafedebutta said 4 years ago

    love it.

  • kanpai

    Sara Lopes Godinho from kanpai said 4 years ago

    I really like helvetica - it's simple and beautiful. I used for my courseworks - they always look clean and professional. But Armin is absolutely right - it's too bland and not thinking forward for an art school logo. And he has a point in saying that there are a lot of new clean fonts that have moved beyong helvetica. I liked his article a lot - it's good to shake things and question certainties - everybody seems to loooove helvetica and never questions why. It was quite refreshing.

  • GraciousArt

    Pamela Neswald from GraciousArt said 4 years ago

    I cannot say that I love or hate Helvetica. I feel extremely neutral to it.

  • mapleandmolagraphics

    Maple and Mola from MapleandMola said 4 years ago

    This is extremely unique. I actually like it. I created a necklace from dinosaur fossil bones, so I guess this would be my taste.

  • PthaloAzul

    Rachel Anne Jones from PthaloAzul said 4 years ago

    I don't hate Helvetica, but it's used everywhere--and I would say overused. You can't go wrong to use it, but it doesn't really say creativity to me.

  • UmlautGraphics

    UmlautGraphics from UmlautGraphics said 4 years ago

    I prefer Univers over Helvetica, but like any font, it has its place.

  • ArleenDesign

    ArleenDesign from ArleenDesign said 4 years ago

    I haven't use it or never heard about this before...But to say its very simple not really for the creativity part but lovely probably for business letters or somewhat serious matter.... So i would say i go with Neutral!

  • BeeDeeVintage

    Liza D. from BeeDeeVintage said 4 years ago

    Something to watch, and something to read: http://www.helveticafilm.com/ http://www.simongarfield.com/pages/books/just_my_type.htm Both entertaining and informative. Who made the scarf and where can we buy it?

  • BeeDeeVintage

    Liza D. from BeeDeeVintage said 4 years ago

    Something to watch and something to read, both informative and interesting: http://www.helveticafilm.com/ http://www.simongarfield.com/pages/books/just_my_type.htm Who made the scarf and where can we buy it?

  • TheMillineryShop

    Marcia Lacher from TheMillineryShop said 4 years ago

    Never in my life would I have believed that a font could be so controversial.

  • scal12

    Payson A from SecondStarDesignCo said 4 years ago

    As a graphic designer myself, I personally love Helvetica because it challenges designers to take something standard and traditional and push it to it's limits to create something edgy, new, and different. It's so fun to play with color and space to try and make something different from such a basic font!

  • customheirloomart1

    Custom HeirloomArt from customheirloomart1 said 4 years ago

    The beauty of it is in the clean easy to read structure of the letters.

  • vimana17

    Aaron McRae from vimana17 said 4 years ago

    The movie and the sound track are very well done. When used right, the font is absolutely Brilliant! So clean and precise. It transcends its original modern goal to become a true classic.

  • mtraub

    Michelle Traub from mtraub said 4 years ago

    @Liza D.: You can buy that scarf from this rad shop: http://www.etsy.com/shop/TheLittleFactory . On every blog post, there is photo credit in the lower right corner that will link you to the shop or artist.

  • WeeBeesCreations

    Ibi Sabo from WeeBeesCreations said 4 years ago

    Love it!

  • BeadCactus

    Sandy from BeadCactus said 4 years ago

    The Star Trek franchise would not be the same without Helvetica.

  • PopLoveCouture

    Shai Wallach from PopLoveCouture said 4 years ago

    I am a hardcore helvetica fan.

  • FunDeco

    Heather Stearns from FunDeco said 4 years ago

    I don't think anything is really neutral. If it is, it can't stay that way for long. Helvetica looks timeless to me, now, but I bet it won't in 2050 :)

  • hjmart

    helen from hjmArtGallery said 4 years ago

    I love fonts! I believe the reason some people hate Helvetica is because the font is very popular and therefore very overused and seems to luck originality and uniqueness when used in designing an identity like a logo. The same can be said about Arial, Times, Futura and many other fonts. I love working with a variety of different fonts, every typeface can be creatively incorporated into a design. For example, I designed logos in the past when I customized/modified some letters of some fonts in order to create a memorable logos/identities. Helvetica is timeless as well as many other well designed, legible typefaces.

  • holmesstamp

    Bryan Croft from holmesstamp said 4 years ago

    I see Helvetica replacing Arial as a standard font for most text platforms.

  • Aster

    Aster from Aster said 4 years ago

    As long as you're not using Comic Sans MS, I'm not complaining.

  • liddysopretty

    liddy sopretty from liddysopretty said 4 years ago

    love the scarf. hahaha

  • kikiparis

    Dominique Adeli from KidzCreationz said 4 years ago

    thats awesome

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