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?