There, I said it.
To my knowledge, it's the only typeface that's had a movie made about it. For decades it was the undisputed champion of pragmatic, modern design. Ruler of the subway! lynchpin of logos! You'd have a tough time making it from one end of a city block to the other without glimpsing several specimens of it. When it was released in 1957, it was rare for a typeface to be so free of pretense or personality. Neutrality was a sought-after novelty in typography, and Helvetica was widely renowned for its cleanliness and understatement, and for its applicability to seemingly any design task.
But today, my fellow designers seem disillusioned with the old workhorse. They call it cliché and predictable, levying accusations of severe overuse and insufferable plainness. It is, to be fair, a mind-bogglingly ubiquitous typeface, used, sometimes in slightly modified forms, in a staggering array of way-finding, corporate identities, road signage, and just about anything else that demands a sense of neutrality. It's not hard to understand how the kinds of people who notice every typeface on every sign they ever pass on the street could get bored with it as they start to think of it as a kind of institutional default.
Designers have an innate tendency to avoid anything perceived in this way, hence the almost categorical rejection of the likes of Times New Roman, Calibri, Arial, and the rest of the system font gang, regardless of context. They are smugly dismissed as the typefaces used by the sorts of people to whom font selection doesn't matter. Not chosen. Used. They (we designers contend) are the fonts used by accountants, secretaries, lawyers and all manner of Orwellian office-dwellers who couldn't summon the energy to fire a few spare neurons on the right sides of their brains if their lives depended on it. Uncultured Neanderthals. We mustn't be like them. We, the designers, the guardians of aesthetic decency, must eschew corporate groupthink and choose. A system font, we tell ourselves, is not a choice. It is the absence of creative exertion, the epitome of apathy and the enemy of that which we hold dear. If we use a system font, the terrorists win. I can't help but feel like this mentality may be informing a generational rejection of Helvetica on grounds that it's overused.
But my trouble with the System Font Gang has never been their ubiquity. My problem is that, more often then not, they're ugly. The generation of typefaces designed and optimized for early computing were clunky, oafish facsimiles of the beautiful, classic typefaces designed before screens ruled the world. They were coarse attempts at cramming a set of precise and elegant curves into a rigid and unforgiving pixel grid. The infuriatingly ubiquitous Arial was quite clearly a fraud, as convincing as the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume at Disneyland, the Hydrox to Helvetica's Oreo. Helvetica was the real thing, the beautiful face that launched a thousand ships (#TypePun) in the late 50's and 60's and was the cornerstone of a design revolution permeating visual culture around the world for decades. It was balanced and elegant, clean and distinguished, with just the faintest of quirks that were functional as well as distinctive. It could do any job and look impeccably refined in the process. Arial was designed as a bitmap typeface, specifically to replace Helvetica in low-resolution onscreen environments. It was never meant to replace it everywhere. Helvetica's clear superiority and unwavering, stalwart utility in print environments was never challenged, and now that retina displays and improved onscreen font rendering are changing the parameters of digital typography, it's frustrating to see what a position of power the System Font Gang still occupies.
Arial and its ilk grind my gears because they usurped the throne of their more deserving predecessors, not just because they're used a lot, and this criticism is not applicable to Helvetica simply because it's a popular choice in information design. Ubiquity is not the same as overuse. A thing is overused when its popularity outgrows its utility. Conversely, things that are ubiquitous tend to be so for good reasons. They are accessible and applicable to a wide range of scenarios.
I love Helvetica precisely because of its universality, because the attributes that make Helvetica mundane and ubiquitous are the same attributes that make it unique and exciting. Its beauty is its profound versatility. Helvetica is a perfectly cut gray suit. It's timeless and unassuming. You can wear it just about anywhere, and while you may not raise many eyebrows, you won't be thrown any shade, either. It is respectable, well-groomed and disinterested, the very image of unbiased moderation. When you're designing an informational system with no agenda to push (like, I don't know, a subway map), this is exactly what the doctor ordered.