One of my long-time favorite design writers, Brand New’s Armin Vit (formerly of Pentagram, now of Under Consideration) just launched a
rant mini-essay on why he hates Helvetica, as wrapped inside a review for the love-it-or-hate-it identity for UAL.
Phew. Enough links in the first paragraph for you?
Here’s his (gently censored, for the children) diatribe, with which I’m largely inclined to agree:
Why I hate Helvetica
As it concerns identity design we all recognize Helvetica as a bastion of the rise of the practice of corporate identity in the 1960s, deployed with unrelenting passion by the likes of Massimo Vignelli and Unimark in the U.S. and Total Design in Europe. It helped shed decorative logos and present a unified front for corporations of all sizes in the most serious of manners. It was, in a way, a unifying technology of the era, establishing a specific standard for how logos should look. And that’s my biggest issue with Helvetica: It’s 1960s technology, 1960s aesthetics, 1960s principles. You know what else is technology from the 1960s? Rotary-dial telephones. The BASIC computer language. Things we’ve built on for the past 50 years and stopped using as the new, more functional, more era-appropriate products took hold. Today there are dozens of contemporary sans serif typefaces that improve the performance and aesthetics of Helvetica but yet some designers still hold on to it as if it were the ultimate typeface. It’s not. Just because it’s been glorified in a similar way as the suits and clothing in Mad Men doesn’t mean it’s still the right choice. You don’t see people today dressed like Don Draper or Lane Pryce — the business-person equivalents of a business typeface — because fashion has changed, attitudes have changed, the world has changed. But, like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what. When you see someone walking down the street, today, dressed like a 1960s business person, you (or at least I) think “what a [jerk].” That’s the same thought I have when I see something/someone using Helvetica.
The main argument of using Helvetica is that it’s “neutral.” That is absolute [garbage]. 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. Standing for independence and going against the grain, supposedly not caring about what others think or of being duped for the upgrades and improvements that “the man” forces upon us. Helvetica is old. Helvetica is clunky. No business, service, or product deserves Helvetica in the twenty-first century more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.
Am I wrong? Probably. Do you disagree? Probably. Do I care? No, as long as you don’t use Helvetica.
To clarify, then, I don’t hate Helvetica as Matt Wahl uses it (although I think Matt’s been into Akzidenz more lately, if I’m not mistaken), or Experimental Jetset, or any of their ilk, because they know exactly what they’re doing and aren’t calling on Helvetica to be neutral at all; their work is an obvious homage to the historical force of Helvetica, and that’s fine. But I do agree with Vit that you can’t just slap Helvetica on any project and call it pure, for exactly the reasons that he lists above.
So, while I don’t hate Helvetica, I do think it has a proper and an improper use, and wish that were made clearer to young designers.