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Love It or Hate It: Helvetica

Since its birthday in the 1950’s, Helvetica has been the most loved, and the most hated, font in a designers’ repertoire. Depending on how you look at it, the generic look and feel can be adaptable to almost any brand when given a visual twist – or can make a brand identity just plain generic. There is a great documentary by Gary Hustwit devoted to this topic (titled simply Helvetica) that explores the history of the typeface and interviews prominent designers with various points of view on this ubiquitous font.

I got to thinking about this film again as I was walking through the mall the other day and saw the above window display. When I saw the word “America” typeset in Helvetica Bold, I immediately thought I was looking at an American Apparel store. But when I looked up, I realized it was actually a Gap. It got me thinking about corporate identity and if it’s even possible for such a generic font to be ownable – but there was something about seeing the word “America” typeset next to a mannequin display that triggered a connection even though there are countless brand marks in all categories that use the typeface. American Airlines, which came about much sooner than American Apparel, uses the same Helvetica Bold in the brand mark – and both brand names even start with the word “American.” The Helvetica documentary explores this idea even further and gives many examples of companies that have had a “modern” brand facelift that utilize the same typeface.

Maybe if Gap had used Helvetica in their display but had given it a twist, I probably wouldn’t have even thought of American Apparel. We often utilize Helvetica in many of the brands we build when we are looking for a font without much personality, and I happen to like it when used appropriately for that exact reason. Or maybe it was just the word “America” in the identical typeface that triggered my reaction. But the combination of Gap’s window typeface, color, scale, and spacing made for a visual formula very similar to American Apparel – a company with a brand that is almost an anti-brand.

So I’m not sure which company is winning the Helvetica ownability contest in this category, but at least Gap is using it as a temporary window display where American Apparel is using this generic font as the symbol for their brand. Love it or hate it, Helvetica is here to stay… at least for awhile!