The Last Word on Helvetica?

Perhaps this article should have ended at the question mark in its title. And by the end of it, you may well concur. But, in the meantime, and before I get started — and I promise this won’t take long — let me be clear, I am not, I repeat, not (in bold for emphasis) a Helvetica hater.

Ostensibly, my only gripe with Helvetica (designed by Max Miedinger & Eduard Hoffmann) is not the typeface itself, but how — and how often — it is pressed into service. It’s oftentimes like that sweater from high school: no matter how much you love it, you’ll never ever look good in it again — and not only because it’s now four sizes too small.

Most Arial haters (and they outnumber Helvetica haters 100:1) would, especially once the most differentiated glyphs are removed, be hard-pressed to tell it apart from Helvetica. At least if you are going to hate, then hate consistently. In my opinion, if you hate Arial (and hate really is too strong a verb/noun for discussions about digital typefaces), then you are vicariously hating on Helvetica, whether you like it or not.

Arial & Helvetica or Helvetica & Arial?

Partial alphabets from Arial and Helvetica above. But which is which? Unsure? Then take a look at Arial versus Helvetica.

The knockout blow

Way back in 2007, for Eye magazine, Martin Majoor, not Helvetica’s greatest fan, wrote:

In the past 50 years there have been many beautiful graphic designs using Helvetica, but this has more to do with the quality of the designers using it [rather] than with the quality of Helvetica as a typeface.


Compared to Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica has hardly any new features. Though claimed to be an improvement on Akzidenz Grotesk, it lacks all the character and charming clumsiness of Akzidenz Grotesk. Helvetica is blunt and colourless; the fact that its italic is slanted makes it even blunter. What a missed opportunity!

And then, quoting or paraphrasing Paul Rand, I believe:

…Helvetica looks like dogshit in text.

And the haters might say that’s a little unfair — to dog poop. But, above all, Majoor’s text is mostly about Helvetica as an uninspiring reworking of Akzidenz Grotesk.

Typeface as hammer

Erik Spiekermann once wrote that there are no bad typefaces. And he wasn’t attempting irony; neither was he being facetious. He was serious. But most of all he was trying to emphasize the fact that type is a tool. A hammer, even the best hammer in the whole universe, is really quite useless at removing screws. It’s not the hammer’s fault: first, it’s an inanimate object without a shred of consciousness or will; second, it is simply a tool — frequently — the wrong tool for the job. Need I add, the same can be said for typefaces. Hating the hammer?

An alarming combination: Arial & Helvetica. Photo by Able Parris

And that’s why it’s difficult for good designers to name their favorite typeface. Favorite for what? For text? For toilet tissue branding? For books? For UI? For… — you get the point. What’s your favorite tool? Hammer? screwdriver? chainsaw? The choice of typeface is decided only when one knows the nature of the job. It does not precede it. And sometimes, Helvetica will be one of the tools adequate for the job. Further narrowing down the field: Claw hammer? ball pein? cross and straight pein? club hammer? sledge hammer? soft-face hammer? But never, when it comes to typefaces, can we narrow the field to a single typeface — your typographic soul-mate does not exist in any one typeface. The final selection is a subjective choice made from a field of worthy and appropriate contenders. Never, ever, ever, by a process of elimination, do we arrive at Helvetica. But we might arrive at, say, a typeface with neo-grotesk or grotesk attributes, of which Helvetica is but one example.

As an aside, recently there’s been a lot of chatter about this typeface looking like another, looking like another, ad nauseam; and, while there is no excuse for plagiarism, Nick Sherman (in fewer than 140 characters, remember), writes,

Apple’s new watch typeface [San Francisco] is kinda similar to other typefaces. In other news, almost all typefaces are kinda similar to other typefaces. [emphasis mine.]

Of course he is not condoning blatant clones or ripoffs, but the point I believe he’s making is that perhaps we could/should celebrate the differences rather than the similarities, because, to be frank, a great many typefaces resemble metal type from the fifteenth century, that in turn resemble fifteenth-century Humanist book-hands, that in turn resemble the letters of first-century Roman lapidary inscriptions, and on and on and —

Ah! I see I’m several hundred words in, and I have yet to mention the circumstances behind my writing of this article. Besides too little sleep and too much coffee, here’s why:

An article on Brand New… So, Pentagram designed a new logo for the University of the Arts London (UAL). And Domenic Lippa of Pentagram on the choice of Helvetica:

Helvetica was chosen specifically because of its “neutrality,” … but also because the typeface is robust enough to reproduce at smaller sizes.

In fact, I’m not really interested in the branding. I am not a student or future student or potential future client of the UAL. I care as much about how they are branded as I do for, well, for the design or branding of a pooper-scooper (and I own one). What’s most interesting, though, is Armin Vit’s tirade on why he hates Helvetica. Perhaps the fact that Helvetica can elicit this kind of response is proof that it just isn’t neutral. And I mostly agree with Vit when he writes:

The main argument of using Helvetica is that it’s “neutral.” That is absolute bullshit. There is nothing neutral about Helvetica. Choosing Helvetica has as much meaning and carries as many connotations as choosing any other typeface. It has as many visual quirks as any other typeface it was meant to shun for needless decoration. Helvetica is the fixed-gear bike of typefaces: it’s as basic as it gets, but the statement it makes is as complex as anything else. — Armin Vit
Dieter Rams for Braun. Neutral? Braun PC 3-SV Record Player. Photo by Nick Wade

When he writes that there is nothing neutral about Helvetica, he’s spot on. That any typeface is neutral is a myth. But perhaps those who say and write such things can be forgiven: Perhaps the problem lies in either a misunderstanding of the true meaning of neutral, or that they confuse neutral with simple or stark or frigid or pared back, or perhaps even, austere. Think of any neutral product — a consumer product; in fact, anything at all, and I guarantee (99.921%) that it is not in fact neutral. It might be minimal or simple or unadorned, but neutral? I don’t think so. Even the unembellished, that which is devoid of decorations and curlicues and fanfare — the subjugation of ornament is a statement against ornament; and in the right environment (say, a chaotic one) its implicit statement is all the more explicitly amplified.

The popularity of Helvetica rests on several factors: the persistence of the Haas type foundry (in marketing it to Stempel), its association (not universal adoption*) with the Swiss school, and its proliferation through inclusion in operating systems.

*As Ruder & Hofmann were of the Basle school they used Univers/Akzidenz Grotesk not Helvetica. — Paul Barnes

Helvetica — or for that matter any typeface — used outside of its intended gamut is a typographic malapropism — ostensibly, like Che Guevara in retirement as Chief Financial Officer of Goldman Sachs. [no, I don’t know where that came from, either.]

The problem is not always Helvetica but that Helvetica is all too often the default, the fall-back, the I-really-can’t-be-arsed choice. Helvetica is the sweatpants of typefaces. And if you insist on using a ‘Helvetica,’ then why not license Christian Schwartz’s Neue Haas Grotesk. And in the neo-grotesque and grotesque categories, there are innumerable other fine typefaces to choose from.

The digital version of Helvetica that everyone knows and uses today is quite different from the typeface’s pre-digital design from 1957. Originally released as Neue Haas Grotesk, many of the features that made it a Modernist favorite have been lost in translation over the years from one typesetting technology to the next. — The Font Bureau

Typeface as water

I swear I had a brilliant typeface-water analogy: Hot and cold, and… — but it’s gone now. Feel free to fill in the blanks.

Typeface as Spork

A spork is a combo spoon and fork, or even a combo spoon+fork+knife. Though many typefaces have many or multiple uses, more often than not they will excel in one particular application: display or text; or substrate: on newsprint or coated paper, or hinted for the screen, for example.

There are workhorse typefaces, usually a family or super family that comprise both display and text variants. But these are essentially multiple typefaces marching to one design. The spork in the photo above is a rather nice objet, but it is doubtful whether it performs all three tasks (spooning, forking, & knifing) equally well. It is certainly more at home in a tent pitched half-way up K2, than in a banquet hall. Sometimes simplification leads to declination of functionality. Simple is not always better — that’s simply a trite, false, and pretty meaningless cliché. Sometimes simple is better. And when something is pressed into service as something else (something for which it was not designed) it is, at best, mediocre; at worst it simply fails.


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.

My impression is that people hating Helvetica never really looked at the original but are — rightfully — detesting this lousy version that comes with computer operating systems, digitized in a hurry in the early days of PostScript. — Indra Kupferschmid

So rather than hate a typeface, why not channel that energy into loving another. That is my last word on Helvetica.

John Boardley