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Helvetica® Neue Webfont in Focus

Foundry’s Description

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Editor’s Notes

The Helvetica typeface is, undoubtably, the best known typeface of them all. Since its emergence in the 1950s and ’60s as the face of a newly global corporate world, it has become not only virtually ubiquitous, but also the eye of a polarising typographic storm of opinion.

“It’s overused.” “It’s neutral.” “It’s monotonous.” “It’s timeless.” “It’s a lazy choice.” “It’s essential.” “It’s minimalist.” “It’s a blunt object.” And so on.

Like most debates of this nature, the qualities that one camp extoll as virtues are usually seen as turnoffs by the other side. Rarely does anyone have anything neutral to contribute anymore, although John Boardley’s recent piece on Medium was refreshingly balanced.

It’s not in the nature of this site to give further screen real estate to acrimonious debate, even over popularly controversial typefaces, but rather to examine why designers make the typographic choices they do, and what functional and aesthetic differences a typeface makes to a website.

As much as some commentators may not get it, Helvetica remains a proactive choice for many designers, even if they made that choice once some time early in their careers, and have stubbornly stuck to it since.

There are however thoughtful and considerate designers who use it with care and attention, and who achieve appropriate and effective typographic solutions, but it’s increasingly rare that these are excitingly innovative. The uses Helvetica is put to were last reimagined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the UK design studio the Designers Republic was at its peak. Their brand of graphic activist commentary inspired a minor movement that appropriated and subverted the conventions of corporate graphic design, typified by the use of Helvetica. Nowadays, designers attempting anything similarly experimental only really manage a pastiche of that era, whether intentionally or not.

Contemporary use of Helvetica tends to point to a desire for simplicity and minimalism, or at least for minimal design intervention. It’s a conservative choice and, outside of the design community, unlikely to be controversial. Its advocates make claims for its versatility, but there are far more versatile yet understated typefaces out there, that don’t require the careful massaging that Helvetica does in order to look its best in any setting. What it does have is a kind of uncomplicated authority, the sort that doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.

Of the examples we’ve collected, A History of Art and Kickstarter’s annual review both demonstrate Helvetica’s commanding presence. Down the Long Driveway… by Sons & Co shows how great Helvetica can look with a little extra refinement at the letter spacing level, together with a stripped back, spartan layout. Helvetica’s roots in mid-century Swiss modernism means that it still resonates with designers who appreciate a utilitarian, grid-based approach, such as MC3’s agency portfolio.

Designers still use Helvetica to make statements: against the proliferation of typographic choice; as a reaction to the trend for textured, handmade aesthetics; to make a stand for modernism; to make something seem ‘non-designed’; as aesthetic understatement. But these are all D2D (designer to designer) concerns, and are really secondary to whether Helvetica contributes to a site’s design success, or impedes it. Our collection shows that Helvetica works when it is chosen with care and purpose, with an eye on its quirks and an appreciation for its strengths. It’s clearly no everyman workhorse (was it ever?), and it will continue to be an overused, thoughtless, lazy choice as long as a version of it still ships with the Mac OS, but it has a role to fill for its familiarity, dependability, robustness, non-emotive, non-challenging character.

See Helvetica® Neue in action:

  • Travel Alberta

    The Helvetica® Neue typeface is set in extremely contrasting weights and colors for this Canadian …

  • Fletcher Systems

    New Zealand designers Sons & Co consistently do good stuff with Helvetica and similar Swiss…

  • Beach Boar

    A succession of starkly-contrasting backgrounds pass behind the image of a…

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