Helvetica: The Backlash
It’s the typestyle you either love or love to hate.
Everyone has an opinion about Helvetica. Not surprising. It’s everywhere, as ubiquitous as gravity. Or to quote Erik Spiekermann, “you have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.” People who may not know much about lettering or graphic design—who may not even know the name of any other letter style—know what Helvetica is.
What has never failed to amaze me, however, is the depth of feeling this typestyle engenders. Historically, Helvetica has been popular among professional designers—as well as amateur end-users, the desktop publishing crowd. This is understandable, since Helvetica, or a clone, was packaged as part of so much software. Yet there has been a growing and vocal anti-Helvetica backlash for quite some time now. And among those who dislike it, there are some for whom the feeling is almost hatred.
And while many describe Helvetica as a neutral or boring letter style, emotions toward it are anything but neutral. Resentment is deep and passionate. One person I know made the striking comment that using it “betrays a lack of integrity.”
Am I the only one who thinks this wrath a bit odd? This is just a typeface, right?
It’s not about politics, religion or broccoli, the traditional hate-button issues. It’s only a letter style.
Before anyone accuses me of being a Helvetica lover—well, I’m not. I’ll admit, though, that this has not always been the case. I overindulged in Helvetica in the past. In my youth I used it inappropriately, wildly. I didn’t really have an excuse. It was easy to do, it was available, I didn’t have to think. But all that is behind me now. What’s done is done and I’ve moved on. I’m a more enlightened designer.
Still, the virulence of the indignation toward Helvetica leaves me a little baffled. I know it has its bad points. But how bad are they, really?
A particularly bitter commentator, Alastair Johnston of Smashing Magazine describes Helvetica letters as “square and squat and [they] don’t communicate with their neighbors.” Okay, that seems to make sense. He continues by explaining that there is more internal space in the counters than around the words, creating “ugly and standoffish silhouettes.” Well, this does sound un-neighborly.
I will admit that lines of letters with tall x-heights and open counters, like Helvetica, can give the appearance of being riddled with noticeable holes of negative space, kind of resembling Swiss cheese. Is that why Johnston describes the self-enclosed nature of the letters as “constipated-looking.” Too much cheese? He also compares using Helvetica to eating foods that are downright unhealthy, stating that when people prefer Helvetica to Arial because the latter is a bad copy, it’s like asking if there’s a difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper—and would you honestly feed either to your kids? He says “everything about Helvetica is repellent.” He calls the typestyle a “wretched mass” that signals that the “bland new world feared by Huxley, Orwell and other writers of the last century is one step nearer.”
This is strong commentary, even without the political innuendo.
Armin Vit, another detractor, wrote an article entitled, “Why I Hate Helvetica,” wherein he likens the letter style to obsolete 1960’s technology, like rotary-dial telephones. He marvels that, “like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what,” and then concludes, “no business, service or product deserves Helvetica in the 21st century any more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.” Having sat in a dentist’s chair in the 1960s, I feel his pain.
My initial reaction to all the Helvetica deprecation is that surely it’s tongue-in-cheek. However, these people are serious. Some are respected voices in the field of typography. And since among the many thousands of letter styles there are plenty that are worse, why does Helvetica provoke such intense ire?
Why is Helvetica Disliked?
Something that you hear over and over about Helvetica is that it is overused or misused.
And it’s hard to argue with these indictments.
But rarely are there specific comments about the actual design of Helvetica letters. Most criticisms are subjective and rather general.
For example, one person said that the capital R is “criminal,” but the crime is not explained. Do they not like the curved leg? It’s unique, that’s for sure, though I’m not sure that makes it a crime. Helvetica has been described as bland and antiseptically clean. But what if a clean look is what you are trying to achieve? Detractors also seem to agree that it is not highly legible, especially in body text. But compared to what? Helvetica is certainly more legible than the extreme thick-and-thins of Tiffany with its funky serifs. I will agree that a book page filled with small Helvetica is definitely an eyestrain to read. But the Lufthansa logo seems easy to read on the side of an airplane. So whether it is or isn’t legible depends to a great extent on context.
It is difficult for me to see past the fact that much of Helvetica dissing is based on personal opinion rather than on valid design aesthetics. Certainly the letter style is overused, and by no small margin. It has been used inappropriately, as many letter styles are. There is no letter style that fits every situation, no matter how neutral it is. New York designer Paul Lombardi said, “there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect typeface.’ There are, however, perfect typefaces for the task (and often more than one)… It’s design that should be criticized, not the typeface.”
Font choice faults lie with the individual designer or designers, or a (gasp) micromanaging client.
And even then, a typeface that’s inappropriate in many contexts may be appropriate in the right one. Conversely, some styles that are useful in many contexts cannot be used everywhere, including those that have made the short list of “fonts you could use instead of Helvetica.”
The same principle applies to many things. That is, the principle that context is what determines appropriateness. It is true of color selection, for example. I knew a sign painter once who didn’t like green. With a smile, he would say it was ugly, and he never used it unless requested. But he admitted this was just a personal quirk. Because there really are no ugly colors, only inappropriate ones. This is true of letter styles as well.
One blog poster at Smashing Magazine commented insightfully: “No font, no design technique, no design style should be off-limits or out-of-bounds, and there is an appropriate usage for everything… [Helvetica] is just one of many tools. The trick is, knowing when to use it.”
Yes, Helvetica is simply one of many tools in a very bloated tool bag. Each is appropriate for a particular application. Is it lazy or a cop-out to use one letter style as a go-to font? Perhaps. But could jumping on the Helvetica hate wagon also be a cop-out?
In his blog, I Love Typography, John Beardly speculates that “perhaps a lot of the present day ill will towards Helvetica stems from the bandwagon or me-too mentality—it’s kind of cool to be ‘in on the joke,’ and like the conspiracy loons who revel in their knowledge of clandestine secrets, they take smug solace in their shared vituperative consternation.”
Is he saying that Helvetica’s detractors are just font snobs? But even font snobs have their place, don’t they? Like wine snobs, and these days, craft beer snobs, they serve a purpose. I don’t know that much about good wine/food pairings. I appreciate suggestions from wine experts. And the wonderful vocabularies the wine and beer people have developed can really help you dissect a flavor or an aroma. They help me understand what I like, and why I like it.
In the end, though, I will make my own choice. I am, after all, the designer (or beer taster). I may not be the best, but I will do my best. I make it a point to try to design what is appropriate for the job and the client. I work to avoid using a font or design technique just because it’s one of my personal favorites. Or because it’s used by the cool kids. And I don’t avoid a font just because it’s uncool.
The Impact of Logotypes
There are a surprising number of brand identities that incorporate Helvetica. A partial list includes: American Airlines, Amtrak, Bank of America, BASF, Bayer, Burger King, Caterpillar, Crate & Barrel, Hoover, JCPenney, Jeep, Kawasaki, Lufthansa, Panasonic, Post-it, Sears, Target, The North Face, Tupperware, Verizon.
Have these businesses suffered because of the logotypes they chose? When 3M adopted Helvetica Bold [Fig. 1] it was certainly an improvement over the previous logo [Fig. 2], but that’s just my opinion. Who knows whether 3M’s market position was affected by the new look. Does anyone even remember all the old 3M logos?
When Pepsico changed their Tropicana logotype in 2009, sales plummeted, presumably as a result. But comparing the before and after looks of the packaging reveals more than just a typestyle change (Helvetica was not used). On the redesigned carton the logotype is downplayed and reads vertically [Fig. 3]. It is closer to the edge of the carton rather than at the optical center as in the old layout. There’s no real focal point to the layout, and readability, in my opinion, is compromised. By contrast, the old logo practically shouted its presence from the shelves. The redesign had a lot more going against it than the fact that it was set in a different type. I think people walking the aisles were actually having trouble finding the generic-looking containers, even when they were looking right at them on the grocery shelf. The fault was not the logotype, but the layout as a whole.
In 2010 there was quite an outcry when, without fanfare, the clothing chain Gap revealed their new Helvetica logo [Fig. 4]. The new look quickly fueled an uproar on Facebook and Twitter and on numerous design blogs and typophile sites. CNNMoney called it a “customer backlash.” I had no idea so many clothing customers were armchair designers, itching for a chance to have a voice. In one posting, an otherwise loyal customer, sounding like the victim of a devilish crime, vowed to never shop at Gap again, in spite of having bought “90 percent” of his clothing there previously. It’s hard not to suspect that this person was a Helvetica-hater masquerading as a betrayed customer.
I can’t help thinking that most of Gap’s clientele would have given the new logo a mere passing notice at most and then continued shopping there. Some might have been irritated at the change. But that’s to be expected, as changes made to well-known brands have historically generated grousing. I question whether such changes hurt actual sales, with a few possible exceptions, such as Tropicana. Assuming legibility is not a real issue, people tend to like what they’re used to. The old well-worn Gap logo was comfortable, like work jeans.
I don’t think the tumult over Gap’s new look was a customer backlash. Nor do I believe that the average Gap customer has the heightened design sensitivity to be bothered by the overuse of a typestyle.
This design hoo-hah was really a comment on the new power of social media, and especially the influence of the loudest social mediasts, with some volume added by vocal designers.
Of course, no one will ever know what or whether damage would have resulted from new logo, since the clothing retailer, within six days, abandoned the Helvetica redesign and reverted to the old logo.
So, do I believe that design is unimportant? No, of course not. As designers, we should be the best we can be. And branding programs are serious business. But a typestyle decision is just part of the whole mix, and it may not have the dire consequences that some believe. I wonder if the real fear some of us have who design for a living is that our role could become trivialized.
Because at the end of the design workday, if my font choices have been less than perfect, the world will not end.