Everywhere You Look: Helvetica

The only movie I’ve purchased from iTunes is documentary called Helvetica. Yes, I own a copy of a documentary about a font, or more precisely, a typeface, and yes, I am probably the biggest geek you will ever meet. Shut up.

Helvetica, the typeface, is everywhere. You cannot escape it.  It is ubiquitous. Every day Helvetica tells us, “Do not enter,” “Public Parking,” or “Watch your step.” The IRS uses Helvetica on our tax forms. The EPA uses Helvetica. The television and motion picture rating systems use Helvetica. Next to Times New Roman, Helvetica is probably the most widely used typeface on the planet.

Brands using Helvetica

Many, many companies use some iteration of Helvetica as the typeface in their logos.

As a technical communicator, I am fascinated by typography. Different typefaces can create different moods, reduce or improve readability, and affect the overall persuasiveness of a communication. Helvetica, however, seems to transcend these characteristics of type. It is neutral, efficient, and utilitarian. For example, the following corporate names probably conjure up different feelings within you: American Airlines, Staples, Bloomingdale’s, Greyhound, Sears, Fendi, Crate & Barrel, Energizer, and Texaco. All of these companies (and many more) have chosen Helvetica as their corporate logotype, and yet, we probably never noticed.

When Helvetica was created for Linotype in 1957, it was an instant hit. Helvetica was clean and modern, and it was adopted by many corporations to modernize and revamp their images. Helvetica became even more popular when it was licensed by Apple and included with every Macintosh computer, and when Helvetica’s illegitimate (near identical, but not quite) twin, Arial, was included on every Windows PC. Legend has it, Microsoft created Arial because it was too cheap to license Helvetica. Whether this is true or not, I can’t say, but Arial has expanded Helvetica’s reach into our consciousness.

One graphic designer interviewed in Helvetica said that Helvetica is so ubiquitous that it’s like air—it means nothing. Another graphic designer said that using Helvetica was like saying, “Don’t read me—I will bore you to tears.” (Only he used much more colorful language than I can use here.)

Depending on the intent of your communication, you might want to steer clear of Helvetica—and Arial—unless you have a special need to assert your document’s neutrality or give your readers the impression that your document will bore them.

If you get a chance to watch Helvetica, take it. You’ll get a better idea of how typography affects mood and readability, as well as the history of one particular typeface. Here’s a trailer to pique your interest even more.

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  • Tony Chung  On 5 May 2010 at 12:41 am

    That is a fascinating movie. I find all kinds of these geek movies amazing: Helvetica, Black Coffee, McLuhan’s Wake… yegads it’s like I have nothing better to do. I can’t believe there are other geeks like me in the world.

    • Michael O.  On 5 May 2010 at 9:11 am

      Yeah, Tony. You are a geek, but you’re in good company! thanks for the comment. I need to start posting again.

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