My Helvetica Neue
I have a favorite font.
It’s not like my favorite movie or my favorite food, where I’d need some time to think or debate between two or three options. It is my one, singular favorite font. When I watch it appear across the screen, I see the work that was put in designing and redesigning its curves and edges. I see the work I put in, as a designer, when I use it. In my years of working with it, I’ve learned so many funny facts and anecdotes about this font that I’ll never forget.
I know it’s free on Mac but not on Windows, because it loads on my computer, but it comes up missing on my dad’s. When I helped my father design his book, we stumbled across this challenge. I know the spacing between the letters is uniform because it’s different from many other fonts. I know it was invented in Switzerland in the 50s, but my favorite version is a redesign from 1983. I know it’s part of the neo-grotesque style because I heard someone say that once, though I’m not sure what that means. I remember watching a documentary about it, which was just OK, but I’m happy for the director, because it got shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I know it’s the font they use in the New York subway system because I found a book about it.
For a font, the extent of scholarship on Helvetica is astounding.
Helvetica Neue — Helvetica Neue Bold to be exact — makes me feel calm. Newsrooms and design projects can be stressful, but ultimately Helvetica Neue is as dependable as a song I know all the words to. Years ago, when I first saw it, I fell in love with how clean it looked on the page, and that was before design was a big part of my life.
Helvetica opened my world to modern editorial design. I remember when I first saw it in the red and white Supreme logo and a couple of European magazines. I remember how cleansing it felt when my paper in high school switched to Helvetica Neue from Futura, a slightly older, more emotive font. Suddenly, all the unnecessary, deco-thickness of Futura was streamlined by the perfect ratios in Helvetica. It became my platonic ideal for what a San Serif font should be.
I judged every other font I came across against Helvetica. Recently, I’ve even experimented with the light version of the font because I like its lanky structure. It looks like a baby deer standing on two long, skinny legs. Helvetica is convenient for me, as a designer. It goes well with other fonts because it’s so uncomplicated and rational, and people like it for the same reason.
I had discovered what everyone already knew about Helvetica — it’s good. No one hates Helvetica. It’s not controversial. It’s a strong font. Because there’s really nothing to dislike, there are no wacky aspects like the faux-handwriting on famously-memed Comic Sans. It’s a perfect font for the minimalist design trend going on right now, and because of that, it’s basic.
So, I guess I’m a basic font girl … if there is such a thing. I picked one of the most mainstream fonts in the world to be my font of choice forever. I love the same font that North Face, Energizer, Post-it and Drake love. It’s similar to liking pizza more than all other foods, or watching The Notebook every day because you really think it’s the best movie out there.
Other designers would understand that it’s popular and understand that the angles and the thicknesses are meticulous. They get that it’s famous and can even respect that it looks good, but they would be shocked — floored — to know that I picked such a basic font to be my favorite.
Every day, beautiful fonts are designed and put up for sale through links in Instagram bios and on the Adobe social media platform, Behance. A French design house that I follow on social media just put up a new one called Cako with two different versions of R and K that each have unique beveling. The different versions of each letter are either concave or convex, leaving which to use up to the designer’s discretion. This choice comes along with thick serifs and differing line weights on different parts of letters. The overall effect is gorgeous; it’s a clean but busy font that is staunchly modern but not lacking in character.
Fonts, especially on social media, are an exploding cottage industry. An indie font found on Instagram with a lot of quirks that costs 80 euros to download … that’s a cool favorite of many millennials. Anyone with the Adobe suite and the talent can produce a font in today’s world. Like many other creative endeavors, it’s been democratized so anyone with an idea can sell work without a label.
People put in serious, innovative work designing and creating fonts. In fact, I think we might be in a font renaissance. Fonts skew the meaning of letters before they’re even words — a single letter can look stoic or heartbroken depending on the typeface. The process of mapping out every angle and every curve in each letter of the alphabet, punctuation mark and number is painstaking. With people putting themselves through design hell to make new fonts, I feel silly being so obsessed with a font that’s over 60 years old.
Helvetica Neue was designed to make me love it. The height and width of letters throughout the typeface is uniform, and each letter has a little pillow of space around it. It’s cute in its technicality and in its uniformity. The way the tail of the “g” almost touches the little bubble part and the way the dots on “i” and “j” hover perfectly in line with the rest of the letter are soothing to me. It is designed to have no message of its own — to be a blank canvas for designers to put meaning into with placement and sizing and to give meaning by organizing it into words and phrases. When I look at Helvetica Neue, I see years of work — my work. I see my editors and colleagues, work I’m proud of and work that I’m not.
My whole design career is there, in this font.