The Scourge Of Helvetica

Lady Gaga represents all the things Helvetica—yes that damn ubiquitous typeface!—is not.  She is provocative and curiously different among most contemporary musical artists. Love her or loath her (which is quite often the case), Lady Gaga’s glam rock influenced theatrical style has captivated audiences around the globe with comparisons to the likes of Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Debbie Harry.

Her audacious persona reminds me of classic Marilyn Manson—or for some people—the musical equivalent to playing with a fingernails-across-chalkboard iPhone app at a hypersensitivity support group meeting. For this segment of the population who feel legitimately irritated by Gaga’s seemingly grotesque façade, watching her latest video Bad Romance must be a genuinely torturous experience. The video is full of provocative metaphors that conjure up images of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and abstract juxtapositions of cyberpunk symbolism —at least in my mind.

In examining Gaga’s weird rise to pop music fandom a little further, there’s this emerging dichotomy of opinions online, expressing varying levels of affection or hatred for Gaga’s art. On YouTube for example, comments for Bad Romance range in tone from (paraphrased): “I like this” / “I dislike this” to “I find this intoxicating” / “I am utterly disgusted” to the more outrageous “Is she a man?” / “Is she a woman?” (debate to which I am still somewhat on the fence yet who really cares?).  There are also countless video mashups and hundreds of passionate video responses created by obsessed fans and antagonistic critics, yet oddly no one seems to express much in the way of middle-ground critique.

Nevertheless, I wonder if this cavalcade of polarizing digital banter ends up being rather essential in the long run—a necessary evil perhaps—to forging any meaningful integrity for the artist in question. Lady Gaga, in this case, carved out a Madonna-esque niche among the music industry illuminati. Gaga has differentiated herself as a distinct musical entertainer—a brand if you will—just like Pink and Rihanna. In any case, the prerequisite to achieving global cyber-notoriety seems to first be surviving the uncompassionate brutality of the fickle Internet horde, then exploiting social media as a platform for audience engagement.

Helvetica on the other hand, seems to be everyone’s cup of tea, seemingly blending in with all tastes and discernable contexts of communication.

I tend to think of Helvetica as the Michael Buble of typography —you could play his music at a wedding, retirement or cocktail party and probably get away without raising an eyebrow. You could try to dance to his recycled Sinatra inspired ballads, but wouldn’t it be more fun to play some Nine Inch Nails and see what happens?

It’s funny, but I think this analogy furnishes us with some interesting food for thought when considering typographic design considerations. When I’m sketching out ideas for a site for instance, if I know the client is über-conservative or unwilling to entertain any radically new look and feel concepts, I will suggest the fairly common Frutiger, Futura, or Gill Sans for certain graphic elements and a common system font for navigation and body text.

If on the other hand I am given carte-blanche (who am I kidding -this never happens!) or greater amounts of creative latitude become available, I’ll explore more fringe-oriented typefaces with potentially narrower aesthetic appeal (e.g. ITC Binary) to achieve a more compelling result.
This latter scenario has the capacity to yield a more tailored design feel with a greater overall chance for success in terms of speaking more directly to the intended target audience.

In contrast, employing Helvetica arguably dilutes the effectiveness of a design solution by trying to speak to everyone with a one-size-fits-all approach to communication. Moreover, it’s not thinking critically about your clients’ marketing and business objectives, but rather dumbing a concept or approach down to the lowest common denominator in the hope everyone will understand or identify with the messaging.

In the event Helvetica does somehow attempt to creep back into the design equation, I consider the image below as a testament to the monotonous degree with which Helvetica has infiltrated modern visual communications. It is well-documented, this almost insidious implementation of Helvetica in everything from corporate logoforms, to packaging and print literature, to computer applications, retail signage and movie posters. Helvetica is the undisputed king of popular culture communication design.

“[Helvetica]…It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food -because it’s there; it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner.” Erik Spiekermann

With so many beautiful sans-serif typeface alternatives available I find it strangely perverse why so many designers simply default back to Helvetica. Call it laziness, taking the path of least resistance, or simply not thinking critically about the semantic issues at hand.

I believe a great typeface, like Lady Gaga or Slipknot, should not be everyone’s cup of tea. A great typographic treatment and visual composition should strive to create varying degrees of friction with the viewer, convey a mood or feeling, infuse clarity and meaning into a piece of work. Invariably this means utilizing typefaces some people simply do not find aesthetically appealing.

A great typeface could essentially be characterized as one only appropriate for a specific set of circumstances while simultaneously wrong for other situations. The old adage you can’t please everyone is unfortunately true when it comes to effective typographic design and visual communication.

Helvetica usage on the other hand, in my mind, is tantamount to not really designing anything at all due to it’s inherent visual neutrality.  Simply put, when everyone agrees on something and the tendency is to play it safe, the results are ultimately bland and boring.

3 thoughts on “The Scourge Of Helvetica

  1. Piera, I’m curious, what Web browser/platform are you on? As of this writing, I’m using the following typefaces for body text: 

    body {
    font-family: ‘Droid Sans’, ‘Vollkorn’, arial, serif;

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