Apostrophes and quotation marks
Dan Pink: Rethinking the ideology of carrots and sticks

In Defense of Helvetica

Helvetica 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).

Gohan.001 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.

Muji 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).

 "Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface. We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. 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 in the documentary Helvetica

Helvetica (the film)
PZ post about the documentary.


Michael Eury

I completed the quiz and the results said I am also Helvetica, so naturally I agree with all you have written!


I think that one important reason people hate Helvetica is that it is often a lazy, default, safe choice. "Nobody got fired for using Helvetica", sort of thing. So it can stifle creativity simply by being so flexible and ubiquitous.

Rebecca Schwartz

I'm only pointing out paragraph 2, second sentence, because you wrote an entire post about apostrophe errors just yesterday.


D'oh! Thanks Rebecca! -g

Richard Michie

Always loved Helvetica and always will. Simple is beautiful

Matt Henry

I was always amazed by how you could take an average, perhaps slightly blurry photograph, overlay some Helvetica type and it casts the entire picture in a different context. It's no longer an amateur photograph, but it gains some status. The perfections suddenly feel like artistic decisions worthy of contemplation.

That's just a random example of how I've noticed the power of Helvetica recently. I watched that film earlier this year and I've been thinking a lot more about typefaces in general, with Helvetica in the forefront. I love the comparison of Helvetica to white rice, and I find it incredibly refreshing to see it used in design.

By the way, I'm a design student studying abroad in Japan for 6 months. I just found your blog, and I couldn't conceive of a topic that interests me more than the subjects you write about. Great job!

Steve Bowman

Seen on a big red t-shirt on a big guy walking down the street at Drexel University:

Helvetica Bold

John Haydon

Great movie, by the way!

Presentations Training

In a global multilingual society, we often do rely on the font to communicate what the text probably reads when we do not completely understand. It is good to be neutral where the item is one of neutral consequence.


I was thinking of all the great fonts that I might be - maybe something smooth, something a little curvy, something fun - and I turned out to be Helvetica as well!

Drue Kataoka

Garr - beautful and thoughtful post as always. I like your take on Helvetica.

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