Few fonts in the world have become part of the cultural landscape that has been the subject of a complete documentary and MOMA exhibition. Helvetica, however, is different. It was a font to reach everyone, from government agencies to hip popups stores when you need clean, modern text. It is such a big part of our daily lives that it has created a long list of detractors.
It’s a strange thing to use such a humble font and hate it so much at the same time. Is Helvetica the font that evokes hips, cool and modern? Or is the anachronism of the ’60s loved by boomer designers who deserve to go the same way as the 8 – track and gasoline?
Helvetica is the Latin word for Switzerland, the birthplace of this font. It was created in 1957 in the midst of the boom of fonts created by Swiss designers known today as the International Clog Style. It was crafted by two designers, Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann.
They designed this simple sans-serif font to be – ironically enough, given today’s shared views – a neutral font. It was modern, in the popular style, but simple, compact and readable. It was something that could be put on a sign and easily read in the distance.
Helvetica was a clean break from the previous fonts. The designers threw up the more formal and sophisticated serif fonts of the 19th and early 20th centuries with bold, clean simplicity. It may have been a product of a new era, it may have defined a new era as it went, but Helvetica was a revolutionary in print design.
The new font was a great victory. One of his earliest supporters was the United States Government, which put him everywhere from the space shuttle to agricultural policy reports. The European Union has gone so far as to use it on all health warning information. In addition, the font extends to languages as diverse as Khymer, Urdu and Korean.
The print was originally cast in hot metal print and changed and redesigned as the world and printing technology changed. There have been a number of updates, all modifying the original design to exaggerate or change the font to make it more readable, especially on computers where many claim that the font is short. And as with anything common in the design world, the number of emulators and ripoffs far exceeds the scope of the original.
Where Helvetica Stands Today
Today in the 2020s, despite being old enough to qualify for a pension, this font is everywhere. Why, though, is something ubiquitous so controversial among designers?
Any style that is ‘another big thing’ will attract critics, especially if that ‘other big thing’ stays around longer than expected. For some people, the International or Modern Fonts era is just a piece of history. Unlike art or architecture from those eras, the pieces are beautiful to look at, but it’s done. To continue with it now would be to imitate, or worse, a lack of imagination.
Why the haters hate
For some critics, Helvetica suffers from the banality of overuse. The day the US Department of Agriculture decides she loves style, that style is not officially cool. Too many ‘tasteless squares’ have determined that Helvetica represents what needs to be cool, so the familiar people do not reflect on it reflectively. Trend makers define their role in the art world by being avant-garde and neophilic. They have to use the next new thing before anyone else or their tenure as a trend maker is finished. For these critics, Helvetica is not bad per se, but old and worn.
Finally, there is the most scathing group of critics who have ever come to hate Helvetica for what it stands for: boring corporate design. Helvetica became a treasure for all groups of people who wanted to convey the image of pure modernity. It’s a boring, uninspired, damn close choice by default. It makes designers look lazy, their work old. Because Helvetica has become an almost ubiquitous font, it’s too cool to be cool.
Why Helvetica is Well Used and Loved
Every salty critic who dislikes Helvetica has the same number of fans. Those who are in favor of print love that it is true to its design, simple and readable. For a government agency or a large corporation, it is clean and efficient. It’s stylish enough to give the publication a little life and flavor but it’s smart enough to show professionalism and understanding.
The connection of print to the Modern and International era can be appealing to others. Some styles retain their popularity over the years, as cultural landmarks and cultural highlights and performances. Helvetica was a product of an optimistic age when light, airy styles replaced the dense, dark expressions of the past. These formations have changed in public opinion but have not completely gone out of style. This enduring appeal of Helvetica has kept in good grace many designers.
Lastly, many fans like it because they are obsessed with its use while it’s out of style. From the original modern era designers to the students they taught, and now the students of their students, it seemed quite an embodiment in their own style. All designers are products of their education and stand on the shoulders of previous generations; Helvetica is part of the design landscape that many people have made their own. This may have been conscious, perhaps unconscious, but on both sides, many cool new designers who are at the forefront of new styles choose this font to express text in their work.
Cliché or Classic
Ironically, the two Helvetica designers aimed to create a font that would, in their words, be “a neutral font that should not be given extra meaning.” This pure neutrality was a goal worth anything named after Switzerland. And perhaps this is the real source of the department; it is a clean clean font in which every designer can insert some meaning or any meaning. It is a white canvas, and just like any white canvas hanging in a museum, it would draw positive and negative comments from its very nature.
But to call it a cliché, or a classic, Helvetic is a confrontation. It’s a classic without a doubt, and because of its rampant overuse, it strays far to the end of the cliché. The strange situation is that it seems to exist as a cliché and a classic at the same time. It is now a beautiful but beautiful default.
Helvetica is everywhere, and like anything that is everywhere, it is segmented and unrecognizable. One way or another, love it or hate it; he’s not going anywhere.