I… forgive Helvetica?
Posted in design,random by Mark on the November 8th, 2007

I’ll start off with an apology to my friends who aren’t designers who just skim scrapbook for my doodles, sketches and random pretty things – sorry but this is about a typeface.

So why am I muttering about Helvetica? Well I like many people who either couldn’t be bothered to see it, or plain had no intention to watch a movie devoted to Helvetica, the very idea of which seemed a little bit like attending a lecture on the joys of beige paint (an analogy the film itself makes at one point) did manage to catch the shortened edition aired on BBC1 the other day. And it was most interesting to me (I’m as surprised as you) because it was informative and even handed. It wasn’t anything incredibly special, was a decent quality documentary at the end of the day, the key point being that it was – gasp – about a font.

I’ve often been involved in silly arguments with other designers about the use of Helvetica, me pretty much always being against its use, always preferring something more emotive, artistic, striking – less common.

And that’s been my view for ages really, I’ve recently experimented using it strikingly and do quite like the fact I can make design with the almighty font that looks just as professional as everyone else… In fact it looked just like every other bit of Swiss-homage masturbatory Helvetica design out there. It was nice to do, but it left me pretty cold. I’d probably enjoy taking some time out to do something with Helvetica which actually interested me for personal kicks; certainly Si Scott’s work on Orange granted him license to bring Helvetica to life in a new light.

So that’s my recent experience with Helvetica, I generally shun it out of habit. What have I been told before about it, well lots of things, that you can’t go wrong with Helvetica (what’s the fun in a typeface if there’s no risk of it not working in every situation?), that its strength is its neutrality, that it’s like air, that it’s pure communication – the heart of design, message transmitted, received acknowledged without making you feel you need to be *** insert demographic here *** to get the message. Purest generic elegant messaging. Which to me, doesn’t sound particularly very fun. Which is just where a difference of opinion lies.

It’s not that I feel designers need to use hundreds of fonts, I have lots, but probably only use a small handful a great deal, and I have a fondness for serifs anyway. So why do I forgive it?

Hmm I suppose the film showed every designer is a product of the time and upbringing, their personal tastes are going to differ, the old giants still worship Helvetica for its no nonsense clean and precise design, as a backlash against the frivolous emotional script affairs of the 50s – encapsulating no-nonsense, honest design cutting through that woolly touchy feely look. Some designers of the 70s associated it with corporate culture and supporting “the man” I suppose, and all that was followed by a pretty intense backlash against clean and precise design. And lots of designers I’ve learnt from directly, are of a culture after that, where they went back to the basics, and saw the appeal of the cleanliness and strictness and structure.

Not really sure where I fit in that mix, I agree with the basics, that type should be more often than not, be very easily legible, have room to breathe, and be appropriate for the message – to sound very like a portion of an opening paragraph of any number of design agencies.

Beyond that? I doubt I’ll shun Helvetica any less, it’s still simply too commonplace, and there are perfectly competent alternatives for neutral and legible. But I forgive it now, because I feel sorry for it slightly (compassion for a font, hmm yes I am this weird), it’s a runaway success story, meticulously crafted, gone from idealistic no nonsense honesty to background noise. Being trotted out to meet several criteria with ease.

Before the movie’s official release some time ago, there were I love Helvetica and I hate Helvetica badges made, and I obviously wanted some of the I hate Helvetica ones, and a lot was made of the Marmite love/hate feel it generated amongst designers. But on seeing the documentary, I don’t hate it anymore. I don’t love it either.

Helvetica badges

You can’t necessarily go wrong with Helvetica, it is its own worst enemy, and that’s why I forgive it.

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