What’s the Matter with Helvetica?

[x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 45px 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_text]Throughout this semester, anyone who hears that I am researching typography will sooner or later ask me what font they should choose for their latest paper, their new blog logo, their latest tattoo. Typically, I respond with something like: What’s the matter with Helvetica?

[/x_text][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 20px 0px; padding: 0 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/2″ style=”padding: 0 10px 0 0; “][x_text]My question is not meant to challenge theirs, though. Instead, what I want to know is the sort of affect or ethos the person is hoping to evoke, and the practically ubiquitous Helvetica provides a nice counterpoint to that. Christian Larsen, who curated an exhibit on the typeface at the MoMA, has called it “crisp, clean and sharply legible, yet humanized by round, soft strokes,” ascribing the font’s formal brilliance to its neutrality, its balance—to everything it does not say in itself.[/x_text][/x_column][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/2″ style=”padding: 0 0 0 10px; “][x_image type=”rounded” src=”http://www.dwrl.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/perfume-HELVETICA.jpg” alt=”If Helvetica were a perfume, it would be the scent of nothing.” link=”true” href=”#http://gutsgloryand.us/proj-helvetica.php” title=”Helvetica the Perfume, via Guts and Glory” target=”blank” info=”tooltip” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover” info_content=””][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_text]Which may go along way to explaining why we see Helvetica everywhere now. It has become the font of choice for brands wanting to seem sleek and cool, from the world’s largest corporations to the most underground hipster coffeeshops in East Austin. As graphic designer Michael Bierut puts it:[/x_text][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 20 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_video_embed no_container=”true” type=”16:9″][/x_video_embed][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 10px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_text]Although using Helvetica—or, comparatively, Times New Roman for a sans-serif—is a safe choice, its omnipresence in design makes it all the harder for anything set in the font to standout. In fact, “standing out” is precisely what Helvetica tries not to do! And if that’s what’s the matter with the font, that it’s just too common, then what’s the best method for finding the right font for a new project?[/x_text][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 10px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/2″ style=”padding: 0 10 0 0; “][x_image type=”none” src=”http://www.dwrl.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/IcX2Vv5.png” alt=”A typeface flowchart to find the perfect font” link=”true” href=”#https://i.imgur.com/IcX2Vv5.png” title=”Click through to see the full flowchart up close and personal” target=”blank” info=”tooltip” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover” info_content=””][/x_column][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/2″ style=”padding: 0 0 0 10px; “][x_text]As you might expect, there are some pretty decent guides online already to help make that decision, such as the handy flowchart to the left, which suggests starting from the kind of project you ultimately have in mind. You might start by imitating the font pairings of other designers, considering what works in the wild and what might not. Or if you’re feeling playful, you might try playing Type Connection to find a typographic twosome you just love.[/x_text][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_text]While each of those options might be useful, in the end nothing beats knowing the fundamentals of good design so that you can decide for yourself what looks best. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest five basic commandments of good typographic design that might be able to help guide you in the future:[/x_text][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 0 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_accordion][x_accordion_item title=”Thou shalt not be monotone.” open=”false”]Contrast is the key to really great design. When working with a document that has multiple sections, consider setting each in a different style font, such as Futura for the header and Minion for the body.

It matters less that the title is always in a sans-serif than that the title type is stylistically distinct from the rest of the content. That means that combining fonts from similar families—like Times New Roman and Garamond—will likely confuse the quick reader and make the document look boring.[/x_accordion_item][x_accordion_item title=”Thou shalt not be bipolar.” open=”false”]While nontypical pathologies are nothing to be ashamed of in real life, in design they are normally scorned. Even if you are following the first commandment and combining different letter styles, it’s important to remember not to mix moods in typography. A more baroque font like AllenB, with round flourishes and lithe strokes, likely would send mixed messages if put next to a mechanical font like FF Din.[/x_accordion_item][x_accordion_item title=”Thou shalt be no more than a triple threat.” open=”false”]Contrast is important, but clutter is taboo in design. Stick to just two fonts whenever possible, and never use more than three. If you have to find a third font, try one especially designed for display, like Black Chancery or Rosewood, to maintain the all important diversity.[/x_accordion_item][x_accordion_item title=”Thou shalt not be anachronistic.” open=”false”]George Santayana may have said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but in typographic design, knowing your history should actually help you repeat a few things. Namely, it’s a smart practice to learn a little bit about the who, where, and what of modern design so that your font choices will speak to that knowledge and reflect a specific situated ethos.

Why does Gill Sans pair so well with Perpetua? Because both were designed by English craftsman Eric Gill, and so are both informed by his particular time and place.[/x_accordion_item][x_accordion_item title=”Thou shalt not use Comic Sans.” open=”false”]Seriously. There are certain fonts that, because of overuse or obviousness, end up sending the wrong message. Whatever your actual intent, using fonts like Papyrus or Curlz ultimately suggests an unfamiliarity with design principles, so avoid them at all costs.[/x_accordion_item][/x_accordion][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section][x_section style=”margin: 0px 0px 0px 0px; padding: 0 0px 45px 0px; “][x_row inner_container=”true” marginless_columns=”true” bg_color=”” style=”margin: 0px auto 0px auto; padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_column bg_color=”” type=”1/1″ style=”padding: 0px 0px 0px 0px; “][x_text]Granted, these guidelines rely on a conventional kind of typographic philosophy that calls for font to be invisible, never interfering with the author’s message. But rules like these are designed only to be broken, and there are so many aesthetically interesting fonts today that the possibilities are seemingly ceaseless. The most important thing is to try out different combinations—who knows, your next project set in Helvetica might just be your last.[/x_text][/x_column][/x_row][/x_section]

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