For as long as I have known, a majority of designers have been beyond enamoured with Helvetica. While I can see that it's a nice typeface, I really don't understand the hype.

Some research into the matter yields some arguments: Helvetica is neutral, well-glyphed (as in: it has lots of glyphs and has been issued in eg. Cyrillic) and has been in use for long.

According to this article, Helvetica has become associated with business culture and is a 'safe' choice.

These arguments don't convince me of Helvetica's superiority. Why is Helvetica so good? Is it objectively better than any other neutral, well-glyphed and not too young a sans serif typeface? I know it's way better than Arial, but is it better than Futura, Frutiger or Myriad? And if so, why?

I understand that this question is at least partially opinion-based, so I'd like to point out that I'm looking for objective answers here. I'd like to be swayed with some proof, not with feels.

  • bemdesign has a great answer :) to me, it is a pretty typeface, though it's being overused and is used in palces it shouldn't appear, to me it should only be used for titles and text of rememberance – SomeAmbigiousUserName Dec 16 '14 at 16:11
  • You're looking for objective answers but asking about subjective hype. Objectively, you're already answered the question "Helvetica is neutral, well-glyphed and has been in use for long". – DA01 Dec 16 '14 at 18:50
  • I really recommend the movie about it. It's more about graphic designers themselves, but it uses the font as a talking point. – Almo Dec 16 '14 at 21:14
  • IBM chose Helvetica Neue (not the same thing, I know) as their brand's font because "It is the font of science and the information age, with a precision and objectivity that commands respect. We lean on Helvetica Neue to do the hard work of conveying information, specifications and the basics. Its clean confidence makes it ideal for our product design." quoted from ibm.com/design/language/framework/visual/typography.shtml , where a comparison of the letter R with Helvetica also appears. – Bristol Dec 17 '14 at 16:25
up vote 33 down vote accepted

Typefaces become popular for a number of reasons, partly technology (which often drives fashion -- "Because I can" is a more potent driver than most people realize), partly the cultural milieu within which they fit and become associated, partly the mood they invoke (or don't). The grotesks in general arrived on the typographic scene at a time when Western culture was rejecting the ornate styles of the late 19th Century across all fields of design, including architecture and fashion. If you wanted to look modern, simplicity was the watchword.

Helvetica is tremendously precise, as befits a Swiss-made typeface, and is in many ways the ultimate expression of the grotesk style. Precision is terrific in the context of corporate communications, word marks and logotypes, much in the way that Greek columns and massive stonework are useful in the context of bank and government architecture. -- It sends a message. Precision conveys dependability, a conservative culture, authority, control; so the association with corporate identities, in hindsight, was probably inevitable.

This precision is much of what designers love about Helvetica, and also much of what they hate, because with precision comes inflexibility. Helvetica doesn't take kindly to tweaking.

An example from a different era might help put things in context. Neo-classical architecture and design gained tremendous popularity 18th Century for its symmetry and serene harmony. It was also part of a cultural rejection of over-ornate design (Rococo), founded in the rediscovery of the proportionality and harmony of ancient Greek buildings. It eventually fell out of favor, ironically, for the same reason: a Robert Adam dining room was so exactly proportioned and symmetrical that there was no way to modify it without "breaking" it. You couldn't change a chair, a rug, or the position of a table, without things looking uncomfortably out of place.

Another chapter in the Helvetica story came with the first Apple laser printer and Adobe Postscript. Helvetica and Times Roman were the very first licensed, digitized typefaces. Postscript hinting made them look good at the low 300 dpi resolution available at the time. They were "free," since they came with the hardware, which conventional type certainly was not. Designers took to DTP like ducks to water, and brought Helvetica with them.

In pre-DTP days, other large sans-serif type families such as Univers were just as popular as Helvetica for corporate work. Once DTP took off, however, Helvetica had a definite edge.

The size of the family -- the number of available weights and widths -- is also a factor in the choice of a typeface for a corporate identity, because it allows text to speak with many voices without breaking harmony. As a designer, I always try to err on the side of too large a family rather than too small when I'm choosing a typeface, if it's one that will be used in a large range of contexts over a long period of time. Myriad and Futura are also large families, and I use both, but the mega-families are even larger.

@bemdesign's answer is spot on. Whether Helvetica is good or bad for a particular project depends on the project. It is dry, passionless and, in most weights, severe. It's notable that Apple's corporate face is Myriad, for all that they liberally sprinkle Helvetica across their product line.

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    +1 for noting the precision of the font. This may be what the OP meant by "well-glyphed", I'm not sure. But Helvetica definitely has a classy sort of elegance to it. – Omegacron Dec 17 '14 at 21:00
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    And with some of the early laser printers, you had to purchase physical font cartridges and physically install them into a slot to use any font other than the few the printer had built in. While this might not have been a problem even in those days for Postscript-driven printers, at the very least it did not help adoption of alternative fonts. – Michael Kjörling Dec 18 '14 at 8:49
  • Although I agree that @bemdesign 's answer is spot-on and correct, this one gives me more objective reasons why Helvetica gained the popularity it currently enjoys. Thanks, Alan! – Vincent Dec 22 '14 at 9:42

I think Helvetica's biggest strength (and thus is greatest weakness) is just how "neutral" of a typeface it is. It really can work well in all sorts of situations and applications because of how balanced and neutral it is. But by the same token, it becomes "bland" - the office beige color of typefaces.

I would never say Helvetica is superior to any other typeface - it has to be judged by how its used and like any other typeface, it can be used inappropriately.

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    Nice observation, but 'balanced and neutral' would make something 'uneventful' and 'dull' to me. I'm still puzzled how Helvetica has been able to avoid those associations. – Vincent Dec 16 '14 at 11:49
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    I don't think Helvetica has successfully avoided all associations with "uneventful" and "dull"! But Helvetica's utilitarianism still makes it a useful tool to have around. – bemdesign Dec 16 '14 at 12:07
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    It's important to note that "uneventful" and "dull" sounds horrible to us as designers, but to business owners & management, that translates to "stable" & "safe". – Omegacron Dec 17 '14 at 20:52

Objectively you've already mostly answered it in your question:

neutral

In that it's 'plain' and not overly decorated, this is certainly true. Helvetica in a lot of situations doesn't impart any additional meaning (intentional or otherwise) beyond the words it is forming.

well-glyphed

I'm not sure I've heard that particular term before, but I assume you mean 'well drawn'. Granted, lots of typefaces are well drawn, but Helvetica certainly is as well.

and has been in use for long [time]

In the grand scheme of things--namely the printed word--it's actually been used for a very short time. However, since the time it has come out, it's been consistently used. It hasn't dated itself and continues to be a work-horse of a typeface.

There are a few other reasons why it's widely used:

Availability

Nearly every desktop computer now has Helvetica (Installed with OSX and MS Office). This makes it a practical choice for corporations (similar to Times New Roman).

Versatility

As the typeface has been popular for a while, it's also developed an extensive set of weights and widths. Helvetica Neue is simply a very versatile typeface for the designer.

All that said, if you're asking "why is it a better typeface" there's not a whole lot of objective answers to that. It may be better than a particular typeface, but in general, there's nothing necessarily superior to Helvetica than say, Franklin Gothic, or Myriad, or Palatino. It's like asking what makes a hammer such a superior tool. A hammer can be a great tool. For a lot of things, but isn't necessarily any better or worse than a screwdriver.

  • What I find interesting is that most of these points (except the extensive set of weights and widths) apply almost equally well to Times New Roman—and yet, where Helvetica is all but universally adored, Times New Roman is all but universally scorned and loathed. There is some sort of ineffable quality of ‘elegance’ to Helvetica that Times just lacks. Times is neutral, easy to read, well-drawn, well-glyphed, and available … but it is not elegant or even particularly pretty. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 18 '14 at 15:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: as an amateur, I prefer sans-serif fonts for screen use. The pixels saved by not making serifs can go into making larger, more distinct letters. Times New Roman is particularly bad at this, as the letters come out smaller (at a given point size) than most other fonts. I agree with your last-I prefer Palatino if I want a serif font. – Ross Millikan Dec 18 '14 at 16:15
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Times New Roman has a more limited set of applicable uses, but I don't see it being universally scorned and loathed. It's an extremely common corporate typeface. – DA01 Dec 18 '14 at 16:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Times Roman was invented for the purpose of saving paper; the number of words that can be printed in a certain area while being legible by someone with a certain level of visual acuity will generally be greater with Times Roman than with most other fonts. In cases where area isn't a constraint, however, other fonts are often more pleasant to read. – supercat May 31 '15 at 20:07

I think that this is exact question is answered very well by the documentary on the font that came out in 2007.

It has been a while since I have seen it, but the part I remember most goes over how Helvetica became associated with modern design at the time of it's introduction. It talks about many other reasons as well: readability, compactness...

This doesn't really answer your question, but for a very in depth answer, I suggest you check out that movie.

  • I was going to mention this film also. I'd especially pay attention to Erik Spiekermann's parts, as he is pretty biased against Helvetica, so it helps give the typeface a different perspective. – Joe Dec 17 '14 at 21:55

A tricky aspect of design is that things which are actually uniform seldom look uniform. Unlike some earlier sans-serif font families which actually had uniform stroke widths, and others which included marked variations in stroke widths, Helvetica is designed to balance varying stroke widths to create a general appearance of uniformity. For example, in some older sans-serif typefaces a "b" would consist of a vertical line and a circular bowl, both with equal stroke weight, but such a design is prone to look a little "heavy" at near the spots where the bowl and line join. The Helvetica "b" has a more uniform look, but that's accomplished by making the strokes non-uniform--narrower on the left (near the stem) than on the right.

Helvetica wasn't the first typeface design that strove to use variable stroke widths to achieve uniformity of appearance, but it was extremely good at achieving that aim; there may have been other font families which were just as good but weren't well promoted, but among the fonts that were actively marketed, Helvetica as perhaps most effective at achieving a uniform appearance.

  • Great points. Even the negative spaces and inter-character spaces in Helvetica were thought through with an intense amount of care, which adds to the harmony and simultaneously detracts from flexibility. – Alan Gilbertson Dec 19 '14 at 0:58
  • @AlanGilbertson: The negative space between characters is an extremely important aspect of a font, and one which isn't really captured by type samples which only show each letter in one or two contexts. I wonder to what extent the designers of Helvetica expected it to be kerned, since some sorts of equipment can manage certain forms of kerning, but others can't (I would think it would be possible to construct a Linotype-style machine which used bumps and notches to handle kerning, but I don't know if the Linotype itself can do any such thing). – supercat Dec 19 '14 at 17:52

This question has a lot of answers, so I'll try to be brief.

Helvetica is the absolute peak of European (or Swiss) modernism and, as such, it strives for neutrality. As Massimo Vignelli put it:

You can write I love you in "Helvetica Extra Light" to be very gentle and romantic, or you can write I love you in "Helvetica Extra Bold" to be intense and passionate.

Many appreciate the fact that you can write absolutely anything with Helvetica, since it is very precise and geometrical, but has human quality to it at the same time.

Many condemn it for being ubiquitous and lacking character.

That is an ancient war between those who think that type itself should not have a meaning, that meaning should be conveyed purely by words formed by those characters and those who think that type is a legitimate carrier of meaning.

There really is no objective answer and it is mostly a matter of opinion. Both those views are legitimate. (Must the word cat be in furry type to represent a cat? Obviously not. Yet, can you imagine Disney, Coca-Cola or Marlboro becoming such iconic brand identities if they used Helvetica instead of their well known types?)

You really have to make your own opinion; I recommend the documentary "Helvetica" to explore the history and context of this legendary typeface.

I personally follow this rule: Unless you are 100% sure that the alternative to Helvetica you are about to use works better in this application than Helvetica, use Helvetica.

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    Good point. Personally, I fall into the latter category - the typed word is very two-dimensional compared to other forms of communication. I see font choice acting as the "body language" of the content. – Omegacron Dec 17 '14 at 21:03

It works…

It works on ALL printers…

No one (apart from graphic designers) hates it…

Even someone with no skill like me can use it….

Even if I pay you do to branding for me, I expect to be able to use the same typeface on what I produce myself.

Therefore the correct question is:

What can be so important as to justify not using Helvetica?

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    @SaturnsEye: He stated that: "No one hates it...", so his point remains valid. ;) – EM Fields Dec 16 '14 at 17:11
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    "What's so important not to use it?" Cost. It doesn't ship with Linux, Windows without MS Office, Android, or game consoles. And it's more expensive to license to embed in an app than (say) Droid Sans. graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/q/11396/19898 – Damian Yerrick Dec 16 '14 at 19:21
  • Is this a real issue for 99% of companies that have MS-Office on every PC anyway? – Ian Ringrose Dec 17 '14 at 15:44
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    I agree with the sentiment, but it's kind of like walking into a room full of beer connoisseurs and proclaiming that Miller Lite should be universally liked. There WILL be consequences. – Omegacron Dec 17 '14 at 21:07
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    @tepples MS Office does not ship Helvetica. It has Arial, a clearly inferior typeface. – Vincent Dec 18 '14 at 11:59

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