• Akshayta Rao

To Helvetica or not to Helvetica

I recently watched a documentary named Helvetica by Gary Hustwit on the history of its existence. For all you non-designers, Helvetica is a font - a really beautiful, clean, timeless font. And for all you designers, THIS is one movie you absolutely cannot afford to miss. In a nutshell, it talks about how Helvetica, at the time of its inception, was considered flawless - almost like the Facebook of modern times - seemingly purposeless, yet once used, absolutely indispensable and terribly addictive.

From brand logos to street signage, even blueprints for architecture – Helvetica was everywhere, to the point where people started to detest it. While many applauded the typeface’s crisp appeal, some found it too clinical and unresponsive, which brought forth an interesting design conundrum – Should type be expressive or not?

Confused? Allow me to explain. Consider the word ‘fluid’ in both these fonts

fluid fluid

Which of the two is more apt? Which font seems more relevant to the word?

Yes, like 100% of the other reading audience, you also think that it’s the second one. And you’ll be happy to know that you’re right. The second one makes more sense because it actually looks like a fluid word. But also consider this,

fluid fluid

Which word can you read better now? The first one, right? Why? Because it’s a better designed font. It’s clean, avoids ligatures (fancy word for a line that joins two letters and hampers readability) and is legible even when it’s the size of an ant. Most expressive fonts can’t do that. While you can argue that not all text is written that small and expressive type works well in large setups, let me remind you that a majority of what you read – be it on your iPad surfing through Facebook or on a mobile app shopping for goodies online – is written in a font as small as the second example.

In such a scenario, designers often reach an impasse. Should we stick to the classics or experiment with something more relevant to the text? Sure, there’s always a middle ground where you choose a font based on legibility and viewing, but if you had to choose – like REALLY had to choose, which kind would you prefer? Go ahead, make a choice! There’s really no wrong answer.

Personally, I’m a classics fan. There’s nothing like a well-polished font that gets my blood pumping. Sure, as a designer, I do end up using expressive type for a lot of my artwork but as they say, you can buy all the books you want on your Kindle, but the heart yearns for the smell of ink against paper.


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Welcome to Tryst with Design. This blog has added immense value to my life, and I love having the opportunity to share my musings with you. Read on, and enjoy.