Helvetica: The typestyle they love to hate

People who may not know much about lettering or graphic design, who may not even know the name of any other letter style, know what Helvetica is.

What has never failed to amaze me, however, is the depth of feeling this typestyle engenders. Historically, Helvetica has been popular among professional designers—as well as amateur end-users, the desktop publishing crowd. This is understandable, since Helvetica, or a clone, was packaged as part of so much software. Yet there has been a growing and vocal anti-Helvetica backlash for quite some time now. And among those who dislike it, there are some for whom the feeling is almost hatred.

And while many describe Helvetica as a neutral or boring letter style, emotions toward it are anything but neutral. Resentment is deep and passionate. One person I know made the striking comment that using it “betrays a lack of integrity.”

Am I the only one who thinks this wrath a bit odd? This is just a typeface, right?

It’s not about politics, religion or broccoli, the traditional hate-button issues. It’s only a letter style.

Before anyone accuses me of being a Helvetica lover—well, I’m not. I’ll admit, though, that this has not always been the case. I overindulged in Helvetica in the past. In my youth I used it inappropriately, wildly. I didn’t really have an excuse. It was easy to do, it was available, I didn’t have to think. But all that is behind me now. What’s done is done and I’ve moved on. I’m a more enlightened designer.

Still, the virulence of the indignation toward Helvetica leaves me a little baffled. I know it has its bad points. But how bad are they, really?

A particularly bitter commentator, Alastair Johnston of Smashing Magazine describes Helvetica letters as “square and squat and [they] don’t communicate with their neighbors.” Okay, that seems to make sense. He continues by explaining that there is more internal space in the counters than around the words, creating “ugly and standoffish silhouettes.” Well, this does sound un-neighborly.

I will admit that lines of letters with tall x-heights and open counters, like Helvetica, can give the appearance of being riddled with noticeable holes of negative space, kind of resembling Swiss cheese. Is that why Johnston describes the self-enclosed nature of the letters as “constipated-looking.” Too much cheese? He also compares using Helvetica to eating foods that are downright unhealthy, stating that when people prefer Helvetica to Arial because the latter is a bad copy, it’s like asking if there’s a difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper—and would you honestly feed either to your kids? He says “everything about Helvetica is repellent.” He calls the typestyle a “wretched mass” that signals that the “bland new world feared by Huxley, Orwell and other writers of the last century is one step nearer.”

This is strong commentary, even without the political innuendo.

Armin Vit, another detractor, wrote an article entitled, “Why I Hate Helvetica,” wherein he likens the letter style to obsolete 1960’s technology, like rotary-dial telephones. He marvels that, “like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what,” and then concludes, “no business, service or product deserves Helvetica in the 21st century any more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.” Having sat in a dentist’s chair in the 1960s, I feel his pain.

My initial reaction to all the Helvetica deprecation is that surely it’s tongue-in-cheek. However, these people are serious. Some are respected voices in the field of typography. And since among the many thousands of letter styles there are plenty that are worse, why does Helvetica provoke such intense ire?

Why is Helvetica Disliked?

Something that you hear over and over about Helvetica is that it is overused or misused.

And it’s hard to argue with these indictments.

But rarely are there specific comments about the actual design of Helvetica letters. Most criticisms are subjective and rather general.

For example, one person said that the capital R is “criminal,” but the crime is not explained. Do they not like the curved leg? It’s unique, that’s for sure, though I’m not sure that makes it a crime. Helvetica has been described as bland and antiseptically clean. But what if a clean look is what you are trying to achieve? Detractors also seem to agree that it is not highly legible, especially in body text. But compared to what? Helvetica is certainly more legible than the extreme thick-and-thins of Tiffany with its funky serifs. I will agree that a book page filled with small Helvetica is definitely an eyestrain to read. But the Lufthansa logo seems easy to read on the side of an airplane. So whether it is or isn’t legible depends to a great extent on context.

It is difficult for me to see past the fact that much of Helvetica dissing is based on personal opinion rather than on valid design aesthetics. Certainly the letter style is overused, and by no small margin. It has been used inappropriately, as many letter styles are. There is no letter style that fits every situation, no matter how neutral it is. New York designer Paul Lombardi said, “there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect typeface.’ There are, however, perfect typefaces for the task (and often more than one)… It’s design that should be criticized, not the typeface.”

Font choice faults lie with the individual designer or designers, or a (gasp) micromanaging client.

The same principle applies to many things. That is, the principle that context is what determines appropriateness. It is true of color selection, for example. I knew a sign painter once who didn’t like green. With a smile, he would say it was ugly, and he never used it unless requested. But he admitted this was just a personal quirk. Because there really are no ugly colors, only inappropriate ones. This is true of letter styles as well.

One blog poster at Smashing Magazine commented insightfully: “No font, no design technique, no design style should be off-limits or out-of-bounds, and there is an appropriate usage for everything. . . [Helvetica] is just one of many tools. The trick is, knowing when to use it.”

Yes, Helvetica is simply one of many tools in a very bloated tool bag. Each is appropriate for a particular application. Is it lazy or a cop-out to use one letter style as a go-to font? Perhaps. But could jumping on the Helvetica hate wagon also be a cop-out?

In his blog, I Love Typography, John Beardly speculates that “perhaps a lot of the present day ill will towards Helvetica stems from the bandwagon or me-too mentality—it’s kind of cool to be ‘in on the joke,’ and like the conspiracy loons who revel in their knowledge of clandestine secrets, they take smug solace in their shared vituperative consternation.”

Is he saying that Helvetica’s detractors are just font snobs? But even font snobs have their place, don’t they? Like wine snobs, and these days, craft beer snobs, they serve a purpose. I don’t know that much about good wine/food pairings. I appreciate suggestions from wine experts. And the wonderful vocabularies the wine and beer people have developed can really help you dissect a flavor or an aroma. They help me understand what I like, and why I like it.

In the end, though, I will make my own choice. I am, after all, the designer (or beer taster). I may not be the best, but I will do my best. I make it a point to try to design what is appropriate for the job and the client. I work to avoid using a font or design technique just because it’s one of my personal favorites. Or because it’s used by the cool kids. And I don’t avoid a font just because it’s uncool.

So, do I believe that design is unimportant? No, of course not. As designers, we should be the best we can be. And branding programs are serious business. But a typestyle decision is just part of the whole mix, and it may not have the dire consequences that some believe. I wonder if the real fear some of us have who design for a living is that our role could become trivialized.

Because at the end of the design workday, if my font choices have been less than perfect, the world will not end.

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Can You “Waste Ballast?”

ballasts picture

A sign guy I know had just come from inspecting an electric sign that was not lighting. I heard him tell the boss to order a ballast that would power three 8-foot fluorescent lamps. Looking up from the catalog, the boss said there were two ballasts available. One would power up to 24 lineal feet, and the other would run up to 28 feet of lamp. The installer said, “Use the one for 24 feet.” I expected him to comment that it was cheaper. Instead, he said, “The bigger one will waste ballast.” I looked up anticipating a smile. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

Wasting ballast? His argument was not about price, that the larger ballast cost too much more. He was talking about some kind of “yield.” Like cutting up a sheet of sign board so there is no waste. His idea was that you get the most out of a ballast when you hook it up to its maximum load. I didn’t question his logic at the time. He is no dummy. But I question the logic now.

Whether a ballast’s full capacity is utilized is a moot point, a nonsense argument. The real issue concerns the lifespan of the ballast. How long do you want it to last before replacing it?

Planned Obsolescence

Modern manufacturing methods include the effort to program a product’s lifespan. Engineers design appliances so that the life expectancy will be a little longer than the warranty period, assuming the product is used at 100 percent capacity. If you have you ever had a device fail shortly after the warranty period expired, you know what I’m talking about. So, when you use a sign ballast at its highest rated load, you may be reducing its life expectancy to the maker’s lowest expectation—in the case of a ballast, two years, generally.

That means that you can get more life out of a ballast, or a neon transformer for that matter, by using it at less than the maximum load rating. Is that a good thing, to make a ballast last longer? Well, it depends on your business philosophy.

If you are a proponent of “planned obsolescence” you may want your sign ballasts to fail right after their warranties are expired—to generate more service calls. But this can be a dangerous game. I think most consumers find the idea of planned obsolescence distasteful, as evidenced by the decline in favorable reputation experienced by American car manufacturers when longer-lasting Japanese imports first entered the US market. In the 1920s, US car makers had perceived that the automobile had saturated the market, and they were looking for ways to keep consumer demand strong. Changing the style and design of cars each year was proposed as a good way to do this. And the idea of artificially limiting the lifespan of a vehicle, or its components, was part of this thinking as well. So building a car cheaper would not just be about lowering the sticker price. It was also about built-in obsolescence.

What kind of reputation do you want?

It’s good to remember that most people are not necessarily interested in the cheapest product. Most people do not buy the cheapest car on the car lot. Do you? Other factors, in addition to price, contribute to an automobile purchase. Rather than always wanting the cheapest, what most consumers really want is a good value, and that’s not the same thing.

It’s revealing that US car makers these days are intent on fostering the perception of durability. And it’s true that the average automobile today is more reliable than cars of the past. Hence, the longer warranties many manufacturers offer. The invention of the extended warranty goes a step further. It guarantees a longer lifespan for a product, for a price.

So, as a sign maker, what kind of reputation do you want? Do you want to be known as a shop that builds a cheaper sign that requires servicing more often and may be more expensive in the long run? Or do you want to be seen as a shop that charges a little more but builds signs requiring less maintenance?

One thing is clear. Loading a sign ballast to less than its rated capacity is not “wasting ballast.” It’s simply a way to extend ballast life.

For a more detailed discussion of this subject, see Dan Hale’s article Superior Signmaking (Signweb, 2007). Hale recommends loading a ballast or transformer to 80% of its load capacity, where possible.