Do We Really Need Another Helvetica?
As the entire design community knows by now Monotype has released an updated version Helvetica branded as Helvetica Now. The introduction of Helvetica Now has sparked a wide range of views about whether or not we need another version of the world’s most used typeface that is hated by so many designers. As a designer I agrees that Helvetica is overused. So why should we create another version?
On the other hand, I understand why Monotype created Helvetica Now. Helvetica is one of the best selling fonts or all time, so if they “update” it the same companies that own Helvetica and Helvetica Neue will purchase this update, creating more money for Monotype. It’s like software updates, continuously updating the same thing will bring in more money with the least amount of work. Tweaking a font that already exists is much easier and cheaper than creating a brand new font. When you dig a bit deeper thought there is a bit more than just a cosmetica update.
Helvetica Now is being billed by Monotype as the Helvetica for the modern age. Which is needed, the previous Helvetica Neue was created in 1983 before open type in 1996. Meaning that Helvetica currently isn’t optimized to be used on 21st-century computers, even though it is one of the most popular typefaces online. At a base level, it makes sense to update Helvetica to work better with modern technology.
Furthermore, our view of a type family and how a typeface should work has changed since 1983. We now demand that the same typeface be used as headlines, body copy, footnotes all while remaining legible. Therefore it was a shrewd move for Monotype to create a Helvetica with different optical sizes, micro, body and headline. While these updates are good and even necessary it doesn’t change the fact that Helvetica is hated by so many designers.
Martin Majoor articulates well why Helvetica is hated by so many designers.
In the past 50 years, there have been many beautiful graphic designs using Helvetica, but this has more to do with the quality of the designers using it [rather] than with the quality of Helvetica as a typeface.
Majoor points out that the problem isn’t Helvetica instead the user. Helvetica is often blamed for the bad designs that bad designers create. It’s also blamed for it’s ubiquity. Instead, we should refocus on the designers and people choosing to use Helvetica. We have so many great fonts (see previous article) that Helvetica should no longer be used for everything.
We need to train designers to use fonts other than Helvetica. Designers should understand that the same font doesn’t work for every design. We should move away from the idea that Helvetica lacks personality and therefore is a superior design. I think that Armin Vit of Brand New puts it best:
The main argument of using Helvetica is that it’s “neutral.” That is absolute bullshit. There is nothing neutral about Helvetica. Choosing Helvetica has as much meaning and carries as many connotations as choosing any other typeface. It has as many visual quirks as any other typeface it was meant to shun for needless decoration. Helvetica is the fixed-gear bike of typefaces: it’s as basic as it gets, but the statement it makes is as complex as anything else. — Armin Vit
Vit’s argument that Helvetica isn’t as plain as we all assume is true, Helvetica while seemingly straightforward does have its own visual quirks and personality. Vit goes on to argue that
Today there are dozens of contemporary sans serif typefaces that improve the performance and aesthetics of Helvetica but yet some designers still hold on to it as if it were the ultimate typeface.— Armin Vit
There are so many other great typefaces out there that can are more unique and individual than Helvetica while also being simple clean and readable, all the things people love about Helvetica. As designers, we need to train each other, our clients, and the world that Helvetica is not the only choice, and in fact, there are many other great typefaces that we can use instead.
In the end, Helvetica isn’t the problem. It is good that Monotype is updating Helvetica for the modern era. At the very least it needed to be updated for our modern operating systems and computers. It’s an added bonus that Monotype added optical sizes. The problem now lies with the users. We need to stop using Helvetica for everything and instead use a wider variety of typeface. The Latin language has hundreds of thousands of typefaces that we can use, and new ones are being created all the time, so why are we stuck using the same font for everything?