December 9, 2008

The Cyclical Life of Helvetica: Revive, Resist, Rinse, Repeat

Photograph (Creative Commons) by Nick Sherman, from “50 Years of Helvetica”

The sound bytes captured in the documentary “Helvetica” are what make it so engaging and entertaining. Whether you view the typeface as residual bad taste, a reigning demonstration of Gestalt, simple-but-boring or simple-and-ever fresh, it’s safe to say that neutral-design Helvetica ignites far-from-neutral reactions. In fact, the topic generally brings out the best or the worst in people, especially designers. It certainly breeds opinion, which for me was a poignant reminder of the importance of having a point of view.

There were parts of the documentary that gratified me and there were other parts that made me cringe. My point of view was both reflected and refracted. I appreciate Helvetica most for its historical significance, as narrated in the documentary. Its reworking into Neue Helvetica is a frequent font in my menu. Its flexibility of weights and clean stature are what attract me to its usage. Ultimately, it remains a choice—which is one way to define design.

It was particularly entertaining to listen to Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, the type designers of Gotham (part of president-elect Obama’s identity and the Freedom Tower cornerstone, among others; it is also known as the “new Helvetica”), express typeface qualities. Typefaces challenge and sometimes even defy description. Consequently, developing a vocabulary to characterize typefaces and promote understanding and interest of their creation and utility is an exercise that would make Wine Library TV’s Gary Vaynerchuk proud. Graphic designer Tom Geismar said Helvetica is “like a good screwdriver; a reliable, efficient, easy-to-use tool. But put it in the wrong hands, and it’s potentially lethal.” On the other hand, Wolfgang Weingart described the typeface as the “Epitome of ugliness.”

Whatever your cup of design tea may be, Helvetica is one of many designs that inspire people to gravitate strongly in one direction or another. In an article (1990), entitled “Can Fine Typography Exist in the ’90s?”, information designer Hugh Dubberly concludes that “The future of type is brighter than ever.” Helvetica, whether praised or detested, is an essential part of design’s persistence as both a body of work and dialog. It is a timeless point of view that begets other points of view, literally.

Other reported sightings of Helvetica:

New iPhone embraces Helvetica (via GraphicDesignBar)

“The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway” by Paul Shaw

“How Helvetica Took Over The Subway” by Jennifer 8. Lee

Helvetica Coffee Mug by Veer

“Helvetica can be nice” by Erik Spiekermann, who appears in documentary “Helvetica”

“The Helvetica Meditations” by Nick Shinn (via

Helvet’Monopoly board game (via