This reminds me of Paula Scher in Helvetica saying that Helvetica was the font of the Vietnam War.
As it concerns identity design we all recognize Helvetica as a bastion of the rise of the practice of corporate identity in the 1960s, deployed with unrelenting passion by the likes of Massimo Vignelli and Unimark in the U.S. and Total Design in Europe. It helped shed decorative logos and present a unified front for corporations of all sizes in the most serious of manners. It was, in a way, a unifying technology of the era, establishing a specific standard for how logos should look. And that’s my biggest issue with Helvetica: It’s 1960s technology, 1960s aesthetics, 1960s principles. You know what else is technology from the 1960s? Rotary-dial telephones. The BASIC computer language. Things we’ve built on for the past 50 years and stopped using as the new, more functional, more era-appropriate products took hold. Today there are dozens of contemporary sans serif typefaces that improve the performance and aesthetics of Helvetica but yet some designers still hold on to it as if it were the ultimate typeface. It’s not. Just because it’s been glorified in a similar way as the suits and clothing in Mad Men doesn’t mean it’s still the right choice. You don’t see people today dressed like Don Draper or Lane Pryce — the business-person equivalents of a business typeface — because fashion has changed, attitudes have changed, the world has changed. But, like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what. When you see someone walking down the street, today, dressed like a 1960s business person, you (or at least I) think “what a douche.” That’s the same thought I have when I see something/someone using Helvetica.
The main argument of using Helvetica is that it’s “neutral.” That is absolute bullshit. There is nothing neutral about Helvetica. Choosing Helvetica has as much meaning and carries as many connotations as choosing any other typeface. It has as many visual quirks as any other typeface it was meant to shun for needless decoration. Helvetica is the fixed-gear bike of typefaces: it’s as basic as it gets, but the statement it makes is as complex as anything else. Standing for independence and going against the grain, supposedly not caring about what others think or of being duped for the upgrades and improvements that “the man” forces upon us. Helvetica is old. Helvetica is clunky. No business, service, or product deserves Helvetica in the twenty-first century more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.
I agree that it’s absurd to say that Helvetica is “neutral” since nothing is truly neutral, especially given its history as essentially the stylish least-common denominator. The politically correct font if you will. I also agree that fetishizing the past is lazy. Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann aren’t some sort of demigods. However, there’s something ironic and a bit pathetic about wanting modernity and advancement in typography of all things. It’s a field that’s based on copying or slightly tweaking existing work. Helvetica? 1896’s Akazidenz Grotesk. Garamond is from the mid 16th century. Some serif fonts can trace their lineage back to illuminated manuscripts, so claiming that designers shouldn’t use a 50 year old font because it’s dated falls flat.