Blog of a Mature Graphic Design Student

If In Doubt Don’t Use Helvetica

Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger and released in 1957. It was designed to be a neutral font, in that it no particular meaning can be ascribed to it. Often seen as modern typeface or even as “the” modern typeface it has been used heavily since it became popular in the 1960s.

Helvetica – Still a Popular Typeface?

I have been wondering about is popularity and also if it is still seen as the go to sans-serif typeface. As someone who doesn’t have the same fondness for it as some other designers I am intrigued to know these designers like about the typeface? What makes it so special?

Therefore I asked the question Why do Graphic Designer like Helvetica? on Qoura

The answers were a mixed bunch, some Graphic Designers like Helvetica and some Graphic Designers prefer other sans-serif typefaces.

My favourite answer is

It is a detailed response into both the good features of Helvetica – its neutrality, calmness, precision, mono-linear stroke weight, modernity, its wide range (it comes in many variants) and that is a “workhorse” typeface.

“Given its neutrality and a wide range of weights and widths, Helvetica is a so-called workhorse typeface, which means it can be used for a myriad of wildly different contexts. And indeed, for that reason Helvetica can be seen virtually everywhere.”

Martin Silvertant, Graphic Designer and Type Designer.

Helvetica Everywhere

This brings me nicely onto the part at only why I’m not a huge fan of Helvetica, or should I say the use of Helvetica. “Helvetica can be seen virtually everywhere.”

Martin also goes onto to mention why designers think they like Helvetica. Because Helvetica was seen as ultimate modern typeface in the 60s it became synonymous with modern design. A culture has grown around the typeface and sometimes a designer may choose Helvetica to appear modern without stopping to think about the other options.

I remember one student when I was studying my HND in Graphic Design that would use Helvetica on every single project without fail. I don’t know the reason why he used same typeface every time, did it come from the oft banded phrase of “When in doubt, use Helvetica”? Did it come from the culture around the typeface as described my Martin? I suspect that it was a combination of reasons or maybe he just choose it because he really did like it.

Helvetica / Not Helvetica

Helvetica / Not Helvetica

When in Doubt Use Helvetica

I really don’t understand why that became an acceptable thing to say. A client comes to you because they want someone to take their ideas and visualise them. To solve a problem for them. They employ you because you are a creative – someone who will look at the different options, test out a few ideas not go for the default option. Don’t get me wrong if Helvetica is the most suitable typeface to get your client’s message across then go for it but don’t just pick it without thinking.

And that is what I dislike about Helvetica the most – the lazy, over use of it. It should never be the default typeface for anything ever. There isn’t a default typeface full stop.

But to be fair I don’t particular have a liking for Helvetica in itself. I just feel that it is too inhuman most of the time for me to select it. Too rigid perhaps. Maybe it is neutrality which I dislike. It just doesn’t feel right most of the time. Because of this I often pick typefaces which have a bit more personality.

When I’m looking for a sans-serif typeface I might pick Univers, Furuta, Museo Sans (love Museo sans!), Anivers or Gill Sans amongst others. I haven’t chosen Helvetica recently for a project but I’m not ruling it out for the next one. After all no typeface should ever be ruled out – expect of course for Comic Sans, Papyrus and Brushscript (I super HATE brushscript!)

What are your thoughts on this? Do you like/dislike Helvetica and if so why? Feel free to comment below.

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