I Bet You Use Helvetica

Lauded as the “ultimate typeface”: both the creme de la creme and commonplace default of visual communication, Helvetica pervades modern-day graphics. It is clean, practical, and elegant. You’ve seen it on street-signs, websites, corporate logos, designer bags, voting ballots, t-shirts, and even nutrition facts. Helvetica is ubiquitous. It’s so popular, there was even a movie about it. So…


If you haven’t used it to write, you’ve definitely used it to read.

The film by Gary Hustwit, Helvetica (2007), is worth a watch. (This is coming from a mild typography enthusiast. And by “mild,”  I mean that I appreciate a good typeface. Put simply: if you dislike Comic Sans, you’ll enjoy the film). It explores both the conception and adoption of the typeface and its impact on global society. Like the less elegant font with which you are reading, this blog post is a less elegant illustration of Helvetica. To fully learn about the type that dictates your life, watch the film instead. To kinda learn about this sans-serif typeface, keep reading.

Helvetica was designed in 1957 in Switzerland by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann. With the intent of creating a clean typeface that was as neutral as its country of origin, Miedinger and Hoffman founded Helvetica under the name “Neue Hass Grotesk.” But this typeface was far from grotesque. It was the spark of a new beginning for visual communication. As the modernist movement in architecture stripped extraneous decorations from buildings, Swiss typography removed the relics of older print-age standards. Helvetica shaved the serifs.

In typography, there are a few different font styles–serif, sans serif, slab-serif, and script. Each have their own purpose and should only be used in certain settings. Reading paragraph text in slab-serif (think bold and blocky lettering) is awful. Flowing script conveys elegance with a light feel but would not be appropriate for stop signs. The most used fonts are either serif or sans-serif. For print or a large amount of paragraph text, as demonstrated in this piece of writing, a serif font is used. The little lines and hooks used at the ends of these letters are called “serifs.” Logically, sans-serif fonts–Helvetica as the case in point–do not have serifs. In various settings–most digital text, logos, and small pieces of writing–where undeniable clarity and directness are necessary, sans-serif fonts are useful. Helvetica, as seen by many graphic designers around the world, is the best sans-serif typeface. It transforms messy and jumbled text into something clear and beautiful.

Despite this large reception, Helvetica is not the end-all typeface. Several typographers despise Helvetica. For them, it is overused and conformist. Some attribute it to mass-socialism, the Vietnam war, and other things they hold with negative connotations. One typographer, Erik Spiekermann, claims that Helvetica is like fast food. Everybody uses it because its cheap and easy, but who cares if its crap?

I’ll let you take your own stance on the issue. Regardless of the typeface’s fame or infame, Helvetica is here to stay. When something is so simple and elegant, there is little reason to replace it. Trends will change, so many logos will likely revamp their fonts, but Helvetica as an industry standard and default for clarity and readability will be conserved.

So let’s start a new version of “I Spy” and find Helvetica. We won’t have to look far; it’s easier to spot than Waldo.

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