Helvetica is the Greatest or Not

orso2932's picture

I keep reading and being told that Helvetica is a great typeface, but a day later I hear or read it is a terrible typeface. I want to start a debate. Why is Helvetica great or terrible and why?

JonPhillips's picture

It's a great place to go skiing.

Never go to bed with a woman you couldn't beat in a fight...

hrant's picture

Does the fact that I think it should be called
Helvomita give you a clue as to where I stand? :-)


crossgrove's picture

Helvetica is very unique in that it is so successful (commercially) that it has become reviled. One ingredient in the popular dislike is the fact that it was bundled with every personal computer since 1984, so we're all really tired of seeing it. It's like pancakes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, 7 days a week. Barf!

One other reason people hate it is that it's used for everything, including fine print, health warnings, wayfinding signage, expensive graphic identities, teeny print in artsy design books, logos, etc. etc. It really does not perform well in any of those settings. For any designer given adequate choices, Helvetica is really only good (by this I mean effective, attractive, functional) in a few settings. All the versions, from original metal right up to the Neue versions, are spaced for display use, which means they look like rotting hell at small sizes.

Helvetica, spaced tightly the way it is, with its monoline strokes, ambiguous machine shapes, and awkward proportions, presents a very difficult situation for a reader. Essentially, at text sizes it falls apart (or should I say, clumps together).

In spite of its weaknesses, and you can see there are many, it is used everywhere by everyone for everything, when other typefaces, equally available, could do those jobs so much better. It's something of a thoughtless default, so you could also say that in addition to the neutral Swiss associations it carries, it now carries an association of mindlessness, emptiness, clone-y 80's generic blandness. You've heard the expression, "To not make a choice, is to make a choice"? Helvetica is to not make a choice. Helvetica is to do what is safe, to settle for something not really appropriate but generally accepted. Helvetica is to not care about typography. It's the hospital gown of typefaces.

Fisheye's picture

Agreed. I don't think reasonable people hate Helvetica as much as they hate its misuse.

Here's a question for the group. If not Helvetica, what should be the standard sans for the masses? Keep in mind that the masses will use it for text, display and everything in between.

•Prakash Nair's picture

Helvetica is one of those faces where it can look like crap by an un-trained designer or really beautiful with a trained designer. Its at that thin-line.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

If not Helvetica, what should be the standard sans for the masses?

You mean some other sans serif face that can, after massive use and abuse, go on to carry "an association of mindlessness, emptiness, clone-y 80’s generic blandness", too?

;-D (Sorry, I couldn't help it.)

Martin LAllier's picture

how about Velvetica? :)

Seriously, I think Helvetica is a monotone typeface -- no expressivity at all - giving it a great potential for “Cautions” and “Warning” on the back of your fridge. Overused, no real italics, no small caps, no oldstyle figures... and bland as a spiceless meal can be.

I totally agree with Crossgrove's “It’s something of a thoughtless default”. Typographically unsophisticated/lazy people use it a lot - in this era of course, in the past it was a good choice because of limited alternates.

My potential alternates?
FF Bau
Akzidenz Grotesk (way older but still better)
FF Unit

Nick Shinn's picture

what should be the standard sans for the masses?


canderson's picture

what should be the standard sans for the masses?

In the current state of computing, Microsoft has a lot of power to affect this for the electronic domain. It is now becoming more common for people to revile Arial. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just a side effect of the fact that *something* has to be the default.

Sometimes I see that little foot on the 'a' when I see some sans-serif text and think "That's interesting, they actually used Helvetica."

Nick's right though.

canderson's picture

what should be the standard sans for the masses?

I changed my mind. The correct, cryptic answer is: something from Lucas de Groot, but he may not have designed it yet.

fontplayer's picture

> what should be the standard sans for the masses?

This one by Akira Kobayashi

londontype's picture

The R is criminal. Helvetica's deathgrip on the world of American commercial signage is impressive and depressing.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Thanks, Nick, and canderson -- that was my point as well.

mpolino's picture

I happen to love Univers. Trade Gothic is nice as well. I agree with the comment about the fine line between a skilled designer and a rook. Very well designed but very overused.

canderson's picture

what should be the standard sans for the masses?

I've changed my mind again. The standard sans for the masses should be the result of Akira Kobayashi/Luc de Groot sans-serif creation deathmatch. The result would look something like Frutiger, but be different in a way that I might never completely understand.

istitch's picture

Franklin Gothic

George Horton's picture

For a long time in Britain, Gill Sans was the Sans for the Masses; and it fulfilled that function as well as any face could have done.

dezcom's picture

There was a time when makeing typefaces required years of work and propritary machines to output. That time made peoples choices for type small and they made do. Today we can have any type at almost any time. There is no need for yet another generic brand face for Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe to bundle with everything on earth and make the default font. There is a lot of Helvetica and Times around because most people don't venture beyond the default font in their word processor. We don't need to encourage them to keep doing that by coming up with another font to take Helvetica's place. It is like having default food at the grocery store, you walk in and get several brown paper bags full of what Safeway has as default food--sounds like fun huh?


kalli's picture

Let's talk about some nice work done with helvetica the shift-worker of all types like someone said...

I really like the way bmw use it...

Helvetica is great because you have a great extended, a great condensed and many other diffrent versions from ultra black to thin. They all have a strong personality. Thank you Max ;)

dezcom's picture

There are plenty of extended superfamilies of faces out there besides Helvetica.


dezcom's picture

I especially like "Danger of Death" :-)


crossgrove's picture

Nick has it: Franklin Gothic, and its ilk, really deserve the kind of attention that Helvetica has had. In fact, Franklin Gothic has been there all the time, unobtrusively performing, in many more settings than Helvetica, for more decades. It really deserves to be considered a classic, and a standard.

One thing that Helvetica has accomplished that is noteworthy: It survived all the technological transitions from its original format (hot metal). I propose that it was able to survive through all that technological degradation BECAUSE of its coarse, wide, klunky shapes and limited character set. Who is pining away for Helvetica Oldstyle Figures? Uh Oh, Type Battle #12?......

The grotesques it was based on have only recently been given a new appreciation, other contemporary designs (most notably the superior Univers) have not kept their appeal over the same period, and frankly, the design standards for type dropped so low that by the late 80's nobody even knew about the difference between text type and display type. ITC with its buttery ranges of advertising faces fed this ambiguity, so that by simply sitting in one place, not changing, Helvetica found its perfect environment. Now that we know better, we can make better choices of type for books, signage, logos, etc. and we have higher standards (I hope).

Like Gill Sans, which was indeed superior in its day, Helvetica has been surpassed repeatedly by more subtle, useful, approachable designs, better suited to the media and technology of today, and we ought to recognize the improvements and choices that we can now enjoy. More to the point (is Helvetica saintly or evil?), we ought to be able to recognize a typeface's strengths and weaknesses, and work with them accordingly. If a typeface can't do what we want it to do, we simply choose a different one (and license it fully from the original foundry!).

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

the shift-worker of all types

Nice. Reminds me of when the authors of Stop Stealing Sheep... talk about "real workhorse typefaces".

...we ought to be able to recognize a typeface’s strengths and weaknesses, and work with them accordingly. If a typeface can’t do what we want it to do, we simply choose a different one (and license it fully from the original foundry!).

Words of design wisdom, Carl!

alexfjelldal's picture

For any designer given adequate choices, Helvetica is really only good (by this I mean effective, attractive, functional) in a few settings.

Doesn't this count for ALL typefaces?

We, as designers, can't expect non-designers to have an opinion on typography. Most of "them" will make amateur choices, and I don't blame them. Why shouldn't they? For them, it works. And since more and more of the visual communication that surrounds us is made by non-designers, it will look accordingly. I don't enjoy seeing helvetica everywhere i look, but what con you do? And what's more, I find my self sick of typefaces overused by "real" designers more often than of the overuse of Helvetica. For the record; I have only managed to use Helvetica one time. And I don't like Gill sans very much either.

pstanley's picture

Helvetica, for me, is truly a mystery. It's not just that it is used in so many situations where it is positively inappropriate. What popular type is not? It's rather that there is to my mind no situation at all ever in which some other face would not look and perform better. At best Helvetica is OK. Most of the time it is ... not so OK.

With most other commonly used typefaces I don't much like--even over-used ones like Gill and Times, even Bookman and Avant Garde--I come across occasional examples where I think, "Hell, yes. Normally not keen on [xxx] but for once it looks perfect." But the only use for which Helvetica seems indispensable is to set samples of Helvetica.

I experience the extraordinary devotion some people have to Helvetica rather in the way that I think about fetishes that I do not share. I know some people get really excited about dressing up as babies, or sniffing used trainers, or whatever, but I just don't "get" it. If people want to dribble over Helvetica, that's fine. I just wish they would do it where I don't have to watch.

(Of course I have my own special private typofetishes ...)

jlg4104's picture

Ok, so sue me, Helvetica-Haters: I used this at the top of the left column of a two-column worksheet I did for a local workshop. Bear in mind, I'm not a graphic designer, nor a type designer. I just wanted to experiment with Helvetica by using (a) the narrow version, which I think is more interesting than the regular, and (b) different colors and weights. There's some line spacing I don't like (spread out above my name, blocked below), but frankly I think it works as an example of Helvetica Neue Condensed used fairly appropriately. Tell me why it doesn't! :-)

caboume's picture

This will probably put me in the minority but...

Helvetica should not be hated.

Some background:

- It was designed by Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman
in trying to better Akzidenz Grotesk...

- Large x-height

- Its forms were refined for clearer legibility and neutrality...

Helvetica was intended to provide a neutral tone in order to
let the content speak, not the other way around. It was designed
based on a philosophy – Late Modernism/ "International Style"

Such philosophy may not be appropriate in every circumstance,
but in the right setting, typefaces such as AK-G, Helvetica, Univers,
still hold up.

People hate the big H, but I suspect it has less to do with
formalities than subjective bias.

Also keep in mind, these "sterile" faces like Helvetica and
Univers were designed by the top designers of their generation,
why should we be so arrogant to dismiss their work without
appreciating the context in which it was produced?

p.s. The piece above in the previous post, proves that
the hatred of H is unjustified.

pattyfab's picture

I'm partial to the straight leg on the R in fonts like Trade Gothic, some weights of Akzidenz Grotesk, Franklin Gothic.

Helvetica was overused enough before the Mac/PC revolution but now you can't get away from it. I do like the very thin weights and the condensed tho.

What do y'all think of it's serif counterpart, the dreaded Times Roman???

Nick Job's picture

The swisser the better.

crossgrove's picture

People already pointed out that Helvetica isn't hated for its self, but because it is overexposed. It is successful in being neutral, which is why it was selected to be included in the base PC font set. Jason's question recognizes that people do feel strongly about Helvetica, but it's not necessary or instructive to simply cheer or boo. Hate is too strong a word.

I do not "hate" Helvetica, of course it's a giant in graphic design of the 20th century. But Univers took the same 19th-century Grotesk style and visibly evolved it into the 20th century, taming some of its more awkward proportions and making it even more useful. Look at the subtle shapes and contrast of Univers compared to Helvetica. Even more, look at how well Univers is spaced, compared to Helvetica.

Helvetica was essentially a very complete cleanup of an extended family, or even category of typeface that type manufacturers had collected over previous decades. Helvetica systematized and sterilized the Grotesk style, same as Univers, but it didn't go any further. It took the style in a direction away from the proportions (which Ak-G still has) which facilitate reading, and eliminated the flavor, without doing anything to liven it up for the new technology or the new century. So while I appreciate Helvetica for what it can do, and for its flawless regularity and smoothness, I don't feel it's an appropriate typeface for many settings. It may be neutral, but it isn't a book face, or distinctive for logos, or readable on the highway or in bad lighting, etc. etc.

hrant's picture

> People already pointed out that Helvetica isn’t
> hated for its self, but because it is overexposed.

Well, there can be more than one reason. :-)
My own main reason is its sickly proportions and spacing.
In fact I don't mind over-use (well, maybe its fallout, but
I'm not big on envy). Haas Unica, now that's acceptable.


istitch's picture

one more thing about Franklin Gothic:

…a thought i had one night when i was having drinks with people who would never appreciate or begin to understand this comparison:

if Helvetica were Vodka, Franklin Gothic would be Gin. they are both pretty neutral, but the FG/Gin has a bit more flavor.

i'm definitely a Gin man…
; )

caboume's picture


When you put it like that, I'm in 100% agreement.

Having agreed Univers is more refined and versatile than
Helvetica, I wonder why it never surpassed the big H in fame..

Btw CG, if you say Helvetica wouldn't do well for signage,
what faces would you recommend?

crossgrove's picture

I think specifically wayfinding signage and highway or traffic signage need type with more clear, unambiguous shapes than Helvetica. Lots of retail types do that now, and there are even some serif or semi-serif typefaces I would recommend for that. I've seen a reasonably nice campus signage system at a university that used Helvetica, so I don't think it's bad for all signage. But if legibility, or legibility at speed, or clarity is desired, choose something designed for the purpose like Avance, Albertus, Auto, Amasis, Avenir, Amplitude, Uh.... That's just the A's.

I guess this indicates what I'm saying: There are thousands of typefaces out there. If you're interested enough, do some exploring. For those who just want recommendations, maybe we need to add some sections to the wiki for lists of typefaces appropriate for specific uses. I know we've discussed small sizes, highway signs, newspapers, and low-res uses, shalle we start a list of lists?

hrant's picture

> maybe we need to add some sections to the wiki for
> lists of typefaces appropriate for specific uses.

Sure, but I have a better idea:
Have a type choice "thesaurus" where people
recommend alternatives to ubiquitous fonts!
In fact I've noticed a lot of requests for "kinda
like such-and-such" font suggestions. Just one
wiki "rule" on this one: you can't recommend
one of your own.


crossgrove's picture

Let's do both. Type Thesaurus is inspired. But for specific uses where there's no ubiquitous face, it's just recommendations (and maybe explanations). For instance, there's no ubiquitous face for very small text. Conversely, Helvetica is ubiquitous, but not [only] for a specific use.

Aw hell, I can't recommend my own? ForGET it!! I'm not playin'!!!


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