Guilty as ever, my life is always in Helvetica. The designs I do, the documents I write and the default font for notes on my iPhone are all displayed in Helvetica. Heck, even this blog. As a regular user, I decided I should educate myself; sitting beside the computer one night to watch Helvetica, the film (2007).
Helvetica emerged in 1957, toward the end of modernism, created by Max Meidinger and Eduard Hoffmann. It came from a need of rational typefaces that could be applied diversely. Die Neue Haas Grotesk, it's original name, was too much of a mouthful, instead replaced with Helvetica which literally means ‘Switzerland’ because of the Swiss style (AKA International Typographic Style) of which it was born from.
The question above all others: Why is Helvetica such a big deal? Why has it been the love of typomaniacs since its creation? Because it's neutral. "It should be neutral. It shouldn't have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface" - Wim Crouwel. On it's own, it can be a statement. However, as the font is so perfectly simple, the viewer focuses on the meaning of the words- the font not taking away from that and drawing attention to itself.
It's described as Intelligible, legible, clear, human, efficient, smooth, firm, ultimate, readable, beautiful and timeless. An example is given of American airlines. Their branding in Helvetica, they are the only airline that hasn't changed their identity in their 40 years of establishment. The considers the relationship between negative space and the ink, balanced between the two. It was underpinned by designers of idealism: While other fonts require thorough checking, Helvetica is right almost every time - not as manual as those before it. Kerning and readability almost never an issue. It comes with hundreds of weights and styles (insert swooning designers). Though not drawing attention to itself, the font compliments the words written in it, as Massimo Vignelli says "You can say I love you in Helvetica. And you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy. Or you can say it with the Extra Bold if it's really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work."
The documentary shows shots of Helvetica all over the world. There's definitely no shortage in trying to capture it. Shots are shown of brands Kawasaki, Target, SAAB, Oral B, Urban Outfitters and American Apparel among many more who use the font as their logo, as well as shows like The Office and movie Little Miss Sunshine. This is where sceptic Erik Spiekermann gets a say: "It's air, you know. It's just there. There's no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica." Spiekermann goes so far as to call the font a nightmare in it's lack of individuality. Type can have a personality the way illustration can. It can be used to convey personality, and he fears that's being lost. Though I don't agree with him going to far as to (half jokingly) accuse Helvetica as creating the war, I agree with his point that it's becoming too much of a default. I believe a true designer should be able to scroll past Helvetica occasionally to chose something else - if only for display fonts. Familiar faces show in film at this point. They talk with Stefan Segmeister and David Carson - renowned for their creative use of type. Carson, the guy we all love to hate, says 'Don't confuse legibility with communication.' Good one. Let's put our articles in Zapt Dingbats and be done with it.
Though this film was more for than against Helvetica, I feel that by showing image after image of Helvetica applied it left me feeling that it's dull, rather than the excitement I've always felt for the font previously. It's saturated. I have a fascination especially with 50's designed hand-lettering, and fonts created with a certain unique charm.
On the other hand, I can completely appreciate the brilliance that is Helvetica. Ask me how to improve it and I cannot reply. It's as perfect as font can be.
Designers, lets have little chats about love for the font. Lets giggle at the joke that we call Comic Sans. But let's not prattle on about it for hours, keeping realistic by remembering, no matter how perfect, it is just a font.