If you were a typeface, what would you be? Today I took a quiz called "What Font Are You?" — you can take it too. I never thought of myself as reliable and ubiquitous, but the quiz results said I was "Helvetica." Many in the design world hate Helvetica, yet others are enamored with it and use virtually nothing else. Helvetica is certainly ubiquitous, but ubiquity is not always a bad thing. The ubiquity could just be a sign that it’s a design that is working well, that it’s a part of a civilized society. Personally, I like Helvetica. I don’t think of the typeface as dull or boring, I think of it as neutral, but not in a colorless, noncommittal way, but in a way that’s helpful and intentional. It’s almost like there is a sort of Zen in the way Helvetica is perfectly, beautifully bland (and yet, not bland).
To me Helvetica feels to typography a bit like Japanese white rice feels to traditional Japanese cuisine. That is, on its own it may seem pretty bland to most people. Now, I love Japanese rice with any traditional Japanese meal, but just a bowl of white rice by itself would be quite boring and not very satisfying at all. Yet, as a balanced complement to all other elements in a washoku meal, rice is truly a delicious and harmonious amplifier of the entire culinary experience. Helvetica is a bit like this in that the typeface is a great complement to other design elements on a page or poster or slide, etc. Helvetica is a great amplifier of clarity without drawing attention to its own form.
Because Helvetica is neutral and lacks a strong personality of its own you could say, its clean lines go well with many elements such as images, especially images with lots of detail where the text needs to pop out without stealing the show. I understand why some hate its use, but while some people just see blandness in its form others find it quite beautiful in its simplicity. Helvetica — although not new — is actually refreshing in its simplicity and neutrality. It allows the meaning of the words themselves, in the context of various designs, to express themselves with a feeling of trustworthiness and reliability. (Helvetica Neue is used in this Muji ad in Japan. Helvetica is a perfect fit for the Muji brand.)
Although Helvetica works well in designs with many elements like large posters or projected screens, and inside images that are quite busy or otherwise dynamic, the dignified yet humble typeface can also work in isolation at small sizes surrounded by large portions of empty space, and it can work well on its own at very large sizes. Helvetica may be neutral, but in a proper context it’s not bland, in fact it’s quite beautiful.
Below is a clip from the wonderful documentary called Helvetica (DVD on Amazon).
— Wim Crouwel in the documentary Helvetica
Helvetica (the film) PZ post about the documentary.