Are YOU a Helvetica Sommelier?

Helvetica. It’s the font you’re ordered to love when you first start wading into the world of design. It’s clean, crisp, beautiful, functional, sturdy, sleek, stylish, Genus, and Species.

Hang on…”King Phillip Came Over…” I got my pnemoics mixed up, I think. Whatever, people like Helvetica, is my point.

Helvetica has its own documentary, its own memes, its own salt and pepper shakers, you name it. It’s beloved enough that Microsoft, seeking to make a reasonable approximation, gave birth to Arial, and in doing so, created a fun Shibboleth designers use on one another to make each other feel like shit for getting it wrong. I always love it when I encounter Helvetica Sommeliers, people who boldly, proudly, eagerly point out whether it’s Helvetica or a look-alike. They, like regular sommeliers, have a lot to say about a subtle difference. They get poetic about it. It’s adorable. Wait, no…insufferable. Wait, no…it’s both. You remember that article from a few years ago about how most wine tasting is bullshit and is heavily influenced by the label affixed to the wine rather than the actual taste? Yeah, there’s no correlation to design there whatsoever.

Pavel gets it.

Let’s see if you’re a Helvetica Sommelier. Can you spot the difference between the two letter “A”s below? 

Two letters, both "A"
Can you tell which is which?

If you guessed the one on the RIGHT is Arial and the one on the LEFT is Helvetica, you’re wrong. You’re wrong if you guessed either of them is Arial. They’re both Helvetica. Don’t YOU look stupid.

There’s an old saying I just invented:

“If you like design, you think Helvetica is better than all other fonts. If you LOVE design, you think Helvetica Neue is better than Helvetica. If you REALLY love design, you love Akzidenz-Grotesk and think that Helvetica is bullshit.”

You can get into the nitty-gritty of sans-serifs and their virtues and vices and quibble about them all day long. No, I’m not being hyperbolic, you can really do that. I don’t want to, but you can. Go to Twitter, type “Helvetica and Arial are the same font, thank you for coming to my TED Talk” and no shortage of fancy boys will “Um, Actually” you for as long as you please. You’ll be the new “Sharks are Smooth as Hell” guy. There are few cultural touchpoints with more adamant devotees than Helvetica. ICP comes to mind. 

It all tastes the same in the spit bucket

I follow a number of design blogs, but one I’ve always loved is “Brand New” from Under Consideration. They show rebrands from major corporations and evaluate them purely on the look and the execution in the related materials. A recent trend in rebrands is the introduction of custom typefaces. The benefits of a custom typeface, as I’ve had it explained to me, are that the company can manage and own the typeface top to bottom (instead of having to buy or lease it from a font foundry). It’s not a terrible idea! I’ve wanted to implement a custom typeface at my current employer so they could steer the development of the typeface into the future. My argument: “we could create something really cool that would be true to our brand.”

Nobody cared. And I’m sorta glad they didn’t. Because I’m betting what we’d have come out with is something like this:

Michal Migurski lays out the problem in black and white.

I’m sensing…a pattern.

Yes, if you went at this list with a fine-tooth comb, you’d find variances. And yes, they’re probably just distinct enough. But…why? Why make a new font if you aren’t gonna push the boat out? Is it the Neilsen Effect? People only want the fonts they’re familiar with? Do the designers for these things just start at Helvetica like it’s clay they’re molding? I understand that sans-serifs aren’t open to a lot of decoration by their very nature, but surely there must be something more visually appealing than this. In recent years, we’ve seen typefaces that help people with dyslexia and that are better suited for kids who are just learning to read. Shouldn’t the lessons of those designs slip into new, made-to-order typefaces? These could be beguiling and daring and wonderful and even accessible. So, why aren’t they?

I can’t point at the designers and lay it all at their feet. I think, often, that design teams and, by extension, their senior leaders, want to see “something like Helvetica, something classic.” I think about that scene from The Venture Bros. wherein Phantom Limb, noted villain, is trying to get a dumpy rich guy to buy a stolen Rembrandt. The guy keeps insisting that he wants the Mona Lisa. Limb keeps insisting that the only reason the guy wants the Mona Lisa is because it’s more famous, that this painting is more valuable and, at three times the size, a better value. The guy keeps insisting on the Mona Lisa, so Phantom Limb chokes him to death.

I’ll bet you plenty of designers came in with a Rembrandt and plenty of half-step-removed-from-designers kept asking for the Mona Lisa. I have no evidence to support this, but it feels right and this is my blog, so I’m gonna say that’s what happened, mostly.

Gatekeeper Sans-Serif

I think that’s what it boils down to; the belief that, if one is to be a Designer, capital “D”, one MUST appreciate Helvetica on a nigh-religious level. When designing the custom font, one MUST start by extractic Helvetica’s DNA. One MUST start with Bootstrap. One MUST bring in three Node packages, regardless of scope. One MUST use Sketch and nothing but Sketch, or we’ll burn you at the stake.

I got into an argument with an internet friend a while back. We went round and round about advertising and branding and design and he shot at me with this stinger (which I’m paraphrasing because I don’t recall it exactly and don’t feel like diving to find it):

“You’re just upset that you had to learn Photoshop in order to do your job and critical of anyone who didn’t.”

Which, at the time, felt like SUCH a burn. How DARE he! But he was swinging at me with a sword that had been proven to cut: the accusation of design narcissism, the belief that knowing the tool means you have the good sense and taste it takes to wield it effectively. And the further we go, the more I realize that we all have to suffer through this. For years, Adobe Creative Suite was the gold standard; if you didn’t know your way around, you would have a very difficult time dialoguing with others about the thing you had to accomplish. Then, you started to see Pixelmator and Sketch and InkScape and Acorn and Procreate and web-based apps emerge that can do much of what those tools do without a terribly-steep learning curve to adopt, or even to start with. And then what? Does that render your Adobe skillset useless? No, but it does mean that fewer people get locked out of the creative/development process because of a lack of resources. It means you better know what effect/result you’re trying to get because it can be achieved without this super-special skillset you honed at your last job’s expense.

The hand-written bibles monks used to scribe, the letterpressed bibles that Gutenberg brought to the masses, the digital Kindle bible you can search. They each took different amounts of time to create, they vary in terms of their artistry, they have different monetary values. But their artistic and aesthetic value aren’t the only value they carry…to some, they’re the Word of God. To others, they’re just a book. (That’s a really weird analogy, but I like it and refuse to take it out, so share it, will you?)

In summary, I really do like Helvetica. I don’t hate it. I just wish we didn’t get hung up on things like this. I wish we didn’t bully one another into “must-haves” and hegemonic standards we have to live up to because if we don’t we must be bullshitters, right? It’s another kind of gatekeeping, another way to push away people who haven’t come as far as we have. It’s not bad to know things. It’s just bad to let that knowledge stand in the way of real progress and creativity.

Drink the wine. Enjoy the wine. Write your notes about it in your little diary. But if it tastes bad, or poisonous, or even just boring, don’t be afraid to spit it out. Drink something else. The choices are out there, waiting to be uncorked.