A taste of Helvetica

This week in Typography Life Drawing we’re looking at sans serif letterforms. These apparently simple and minimal shapes, in fact have complex backstories and they reflect huge changes both in society and cultural attitudes. Here are some extras about Helvetica that didn’t make it into the episode. 

Helvetica has become ubiquitous, look around and it won’t be long before you read something set in Helvetica; it appears on the New York Subway, on tax forms and has been embraced by technology companies. Graphic designers love it, so the typeface has been a design industry default for many years. Much of its enduring appeal is not just in the perceived neutrality of its form, or in its extensive font family, but with the history and the associations that it has absorbed along the way that have made it one of the most famous typefaces of all time.

Helvetica was designed to appear neutral — to have no intrinsic associations of its own so that words could speak for themselves without any added meaning from the style of the typeface.

1. Is Helvetica is still seen as the serious and instructional typeface it was designed to be?

Helvetica was designed for practical scenarios like signage, according to Helvetica the documentary by Gary Hustwit. In Sarah’s online survey over 70% of participants said they would take a danger sign set in Helvetica more seriously than in a selection of other typefaces.

Online Type Tasting survey 348 responses 

However, context is vital, and in a different scenario, Sarah finds that Comic Sans might be voted as more believable than either Helvetica or Baskerville.


2. It turns out Helvetica has a personality

According to the results of Type Tasting Font Census surveys, Helvetica has the personality of an everyman, doer and idealist. Its values are said to be conventional, confident and modern while its style is described as neutral, credible and calm. When asked what kind of shoes the typeface would be, a popular answer is “sensible work shoes”.

Online Type Tasting Font Census survey, 337 responses 


3. Graphic designers show more deference to Helvetica

When shown a sample of text set in Helvetica, Sarah finds that designers are likely to recognise it and to use descriptive words like intellectual, intelligent and stylish. However, non-designers often use descriptions like everyman, meh, dull, and have commented that it reminds them of tax forms or official information.

“Most people who use Helvetica, use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner.”  Typographer, designer and writer Erik Spiekermann, Helvetica (documentary), 2007.

For the full story see Why Fonts Matter page 81


4. What kind of pub would Helvetica be?

Typefaces are cultural codes that tell you a great deal about a product or venue. We read these instinctively, having gathered subconscious associations every time we’ve seen a typeface from the context we’ve seen it used in.

When asked in a survey what kind of pub would have a sign in Helvetica, descriptions include cheap, minimal interior, basic and bland, community, moody bar staff, cheap decor, metal furniture, cash only.


For comparison, the pub with the sign in Copperplate is described as a country pub, open fire, traditional, pub cat, expensive, warm, touristy, gentrified, next to a law court.



5. Helvetica Bold is sometimes considered ‘cheap’

In 2010 high street fashion shop Gap scrapped its redesign after just a few days following customer protests that the new logo in Helvetica Bold (right) looked ‘cheapy, tacky, ordinary’ according to BBC News. However, it would be interesting to see whether this would have the same reaction today since so many of the fashion super brands now appear to be moving to neutral, sans serif logos.

Sarah plays a game at events in which she asks participants to place typefaces in order of perceived value. Helvetica Heavy (2) is voted as sitting towards the cheapest end of the scale, whilst Helvetica Light (5) is higher up the scale.

What’s interesting is that having played this game at events for the last seven years; Sarah is starting to see the typefaces at the expensive end of the scale are shuffling as cultural attitudes are changing. Find out more in the online Decoding consumer type trends session.

368 participants in a combined online and live experiment at the Victoria and Albert Museum for the London Design Festival in 2015, photos by David Owens 


6. Would you date Helvetica?

In the online Type Dating Game, Helvetica was voted to be both the fourth most dateable man and woman. It might not set hearts on fire but it’s not going to be left on the shelf. However, it was also the top choice to be just-good-friends with.

5,584 participants took part in the online Type Tasting Type Dating Game 


7. What would Helvetica taste like?

Helvetica was designed to be neutral; a carrier of words that added no additional implied meaning of its own. Sarah’s edible interpretation of Helvetica reflects this in the form of savoury water biscuits that are plain enough that they can be topped with any food without influencing its flavour. They have a sprinkling of salt and a dash of rosemary for a suggestion of fresh Swiss mountain air. Read the full recipe in Why Fonts Matter page 123.

Edible Helvetica as plain water biscuits with a dash of rosemary and salt


Find out more about Typography Life Drawing with Sarah Hyndman here. You’re guaranteed to learn something new while you draw!