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The Helvetica argument, worthy of its celebrity status? Banner Image

The Helvetica argument, worthy of its celebrity status?

May 1, 2019

Ashleigh Hawthorne

The Helvetica typeface has proven to be one of the most popular Sans Serif fonts of all time, loved for bringing order to the disordered. Designed by Edouard Hoffmann it became the poster font for the 20th Century. It is the only typeface ever to have its 50th birthday met with a major museum exhibition at MoMa, a first place spot on FontShop Germany’s ‘ Best Fonts of All Time’ list, and have an award-winning independent film made in its legacy.

Helvetica’s core weights make it very legible, it has a large x-height and fairly short ascenders and descenders, unsurprisingly making it the typeface of choice for the masses in 1985. A firm favourite in advertising as mass communicator appropriate for any context. Corporate brands such as American Airlines, Staples, and Tupperware were quick to convert and join the phenomenon, it even became the poster font for the New York Signage bringing order to one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Tom Geismar an American designer cited that Helvetica is ‘Like a good screwdriver; a reliable, efficient, easy to use tool’.

Helvetica’s security as a typeface is certain, however, is it too mundane? In the 21st Century, the font is unavoidable. What was once seen as new and exciting is now perceived as mass marketed and bland. It can lack any real dominant voice with many in the design world considering its overuse a default typographic design choice.

American Apparel is an example of a company who used Helvetica, their advertisements which were once thrilling, cutting edge and modern now blend into the background, their message unnoticed. I can't help but wonder if the lack of individuality shown through their branding and thus their chosen typeface, Helvetica played a role in the brands' bankruptcy in 2016 as they failed to attract the crowds. In todays society, Helvetica is now associated with corporate dominance, a machine like indifference and bland conformity has been left powerless and likened to white paint. This begs the question, if it is not attracting attention, is efficiently communicating anything?

The most dominant example of the invisibility of the Helvetica Typeface is shown on the cover of current cigarette packaging, the copy ‘Smoking Kills’ was implemented in 2003 as an effort to enhance public awareness of the harmful medical effects smoking can have. The 2007 meta-analyses indicated that the communication of the graphic warning set in black Helvetica bold on a white background was proving ineffective. When was the last time you noticed the ‘smoking kills’ type on the front of a cigarette packet preventing a cigarette purchase?

Helvetica derived from a time where it was necessary, and there will always be a need for a legible, timeless typeface. However, the beauty of being a designer in the 21st century means freedom to break the boundaries of creativity and legibility. Today there are many design theories coexisting together and what might be classified as good design to one person will vary to the next. It is interesting to see how Helvetica has responded to this with its reinvented ‘Helvetica Now’ typeface for the 21st century. The new iteration retains the originals much-loved neutrality yet offers a modern sensibility. Helvetic New stays true to the simplicity of its past yet it aims to be able to grow with the ever-changing design environments.

A typeface should not be picked for its name or simply on its rich history but for what it can offer the current design needs. Helvetica should be chosen with the intent to serve a specific purpose and not as an unimaginative default. Only time will tell the popularity of Helvetica Now and if it lives up to its potential for more experimentation and personal expression.