Bryan Sebesta

On Hating Helvetica

John Boardley, writing sharply (and hilariously) on nature’s most ubiquitous typeface, Helvetica.

And that’s why it’s difficult for good designers to name their favorite typeface. Favorite for what? For text? For toilet tissue branding? For books? For UI? For… — you get the point. What’s your favorite tool? Hammer? screwdriver? chainsaw? The choice of typeface is decided only when one knows the nature of the job. It does not precede it. And sometimes, Helvetica will be one of the tools adequate for the job. Further narrowing down the field: Claw hammer? ball pein? cross and straight pein? club hammer? sledge hammer? soft-face hammer? But never, when it comes to typefaces, can we narrow the field to a single typeface — your typographic soul-mate does not exist in any one typeface. The final selection is a subjective choice made from a field of worthy and appropriate contenders. Never, ever, ever, by a process of elimination, do we arrive at Helvetica. But we might arrive at, say, a typeface with neo-grotesk or grotesk attributes, of which Helvetica is but one example.

I am an amateur typographer. I’ve read several books on typography, but I am not trained in the careful selection “made from a field of worthy and appropriate contenders.” But I think I know this: that while typographic selection is subjective, there exists “better” and “worse” choices. (Anything worth doing can be done better or worse.) Which begs the question: what tools exist for making this choice, and making it well?

I’m still investigating that, but what I know now: I could do worse than begin with “never use Helvetica.”

Helvetica — or for that matter any typeface — used outside of its intended gamut is a typographic malapropism. The problem is not always Helvetica but that Helvetica is all too often the default, the fall-back, the I-really-can’t-be-arsed choice. Helvetica is the sweatpants of typefaces.

(“Helvetica is the sweatpants of typefaces” is a phrase I am definitely going to steal.)