What’s the Matter With Helvetica, Anyhow?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Stephen Coles, Helvetica lover/hater:

Like most classic typefaces, the problems with Helvetica are not so much in its design as its misuse. Helvetica as often a “safe choice” for anyone who is too afraid or too lazy to choose something else. The main mistakes I see in its use have to do with a misunderstanding of functionality or context.

Functionality. The digital Helvetica (particularly Neue Helvetica) that we know today is not great for text or user interface. Its tight spacing, uniformity, and relative lack of rhythm and contrast pose significant readability and legibility issues in these kinds of settings.

Context. Designers often choose Helvetica either because it is assumed to be a “neutral” design that is compatible with any kind of content and will not distract from it. As the documentary film Helvetica demonstrated, this may or may not be true depending on the context of the use. Sometimes it is ignored like air; sometimes it is a dramatic shock to the system. Any typeface choice requires an examination of the context (cultural environment, competitive products, format, medium), and often Helvetica is blindly chosen for a project or brand without sufficient examination of its surroundings.

On the flip side, Helvetica is also often picked for reasons opposite of neutrality—the user believing it is a sophisticated and fashionable design choice that will distinguish them in the marketplace. This is also folly. Visit any mall in America for proof of Helvetica’s ubiquity.

Yes, there are legitimate criticisms of Helvetica itself (especially the versions available today), but in most cases, one should blame ignorant and negligent users, not the typeface. There are many very fine uses, both historical and current, so it’s certainly possible to make it work. The choice just requires proper research, testing, execution, and good taste—like any design decision.

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