Helvetica vs Lobster – Saturated Typefaces in Identity Design

Posted: | | Filed under: Articles | 6 Comments »

Helvetica vs Lobster – Saturated Typefaces in Identity Design by Richard Baird

A recent discussion got me thinking about the part saturation plays in the selection of typefaces within identity design and what impact it has on the classics. What really separates Helvetica from Lobster and why do designers attribute the same negative perception of saturation to two completely different typefaces?

I’ve chosen Helvetica and Lobster as representative examples of two typeface groups, one that I believe should be used with caution and the other embraced.

For me, Helvetica has an understated familiarity, it is not significantly distinctive today as it was (there are many with similar philosophies and forms) but it’s respected as a product of functionality and the modernism of its time.

Conceived in 1957 it has seen a slow burn to saturation, typically utilised in corporate settings it’s now perhaps frowned upon because of its transferable personality and ease of use. For this article, Helvetica represents the broader sans serif families such as Gotham, Univers and Avenir etc. In contrast, Lobster has an overt and distinctive tone of voice delivered through superfluous detail and ligatures. Fast in its uptake and subsequent saturation, Lobster is a product of a current 50‘s trend perpetuated by an expanding free typeface market, tighter budgets and the accessibility of design to the young and inexperienced. It’s one of a number of ‘character’ typefaces which include Museo, Fertigo and Deftone etc.

In isolation

I believe that the saturation of character typefaces in the freelance industry is as a result of peer admiration being heavily weighted in favour of the artistic merit of single, isolated assets perpetuated by ‘logo-only’ on-line galleries and publications. The vast and continual absence of context across these resources creates an environment where art is celebrated over competency and restraint. This display and adoration of artistry encourages the inexperienced and impressionable , in a bid to draw community attention and fulfil just-a-logo briefs, to select over-designed typefaces such as Lobster, on the basis of initial impact and a ‘wow’ factor while Helvetica is quickly discarded as it delivers (to design illiterate clients) less perceived value in isolation.

Context

In isolation character typefaces flourish and saturate quickly in the hands of the inexperienced but context and experience favours the classics.

A good brand should have a multi-faceted but coherent personality that can converse with a consumer through a number of different interactions. Each trait must be balanced across a diverse and communicative fabric of touch-points and assets, avoid contradicting itself and be collectively unique and expressive. Any component that appears borrowed, easily recognised, dominant or confused with another brand will compromise the integrity of the brand. This is where Lobster begins to demonstrate problems. Its overt quirks and distinctive personality is likely to either define, mis-represent (in inexperienced hands) or over-power the communicative subtleties of a broader set of assets. Helvetica’s restraint and its broadly unidentifiable traits (to the non-designer) becomes a flexible and complimentary tool, able to deliver a sense of professionalism alongside other more proprietary components.

The subtle characteristics of a logo-type should add further depth to a brand’s visual identity and not be relied upon to bare the weight of the whole message. It’s a careful balancing act that typefaces like Helvetica can contribute to and Lobster upset.

The impact budget and experience has on saturation

With freelance constraints such as requests for single assets, the growing commoditisation of logo design (due to crowd-sourcing and off-the-shelf products), the increasing accessibility of design opportunities to the young or subsidised fees to quickly build a commercial portfolio, inexperienced designers default to the popular and highly stylised free typeface choices. It’s a complex series of factors that ultimately places increasing pressure on designers to deliver more for less. In contrast, experienced designers and studios, working with larger budgets to create brand experiences delivered across multiple assets are far less interested in the impact of individual elements, their challenge and sense of creativity stems from developing the more communicative aspects such as environmental and interactive design. The saturation and price of Helvetica is far less of a issue when taken within the context of a brand.

The site Brand New really emphasises this divide as the inexperienced criticise the experienced for the use of Helvetica logo-types while offering praise for the innovative animations and engaging collateral.

Long term vs short term saturation and the importance of origin

Like many of its character companions, Lobster is the product of a quick and increasingly disposable market place that was originally created to stimulate the purchase of complete families. This free market built up around this idea has led to typefaces being created purely for impact and personal exposure rather than longevity, practicality, usability or founded on an interest in solid design principles. Helvetica was born out of a design philosophy and the accumulated design experience of Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, it has a strong and definable purpose that is functional, highly legible and easy to manage. Unfortunately it’s this functionality that has secured its position as the go-to choice most likely to look good with the least amount of effort. With such a perception (and perhaps a design snobbery), experienced designers, looking for originality and with the same desire for admiration (frequently with a large audience of ‘followers’), unnecessarily shun such a typeface.

Understanding the origin of a typeface can provide a designer with a clue to its trajectory, in the case of free typefaces this can be widely unpredictable and quick to occur while significant longevity follows a far less erratic and predictable course ideal for a brands that may expand their propositions.

What can be drawn from these observations?

Young designers should look to create logo-types with longevity by considering whether their selection is appropriate within the context of a growing company and diversifying brand experience, even when working on a single asset at the beginning of their career. They should be confident to select simple typefaces, chase projects with broader scope and temper their desire for peer admiration.

Experienced designers should acknowledge competent type selection skills and kerning on community websites and question young designers on the necessity for customisation. They should aim to share context with well written descriptions and ask others to expand on theirs alongside the critiquing of artistic merit.

All designers should endeavour to learn more about the origins, histories and philosophies that underpin their typeface choices and how well these resonate with the identity project they are working on. These can often reveal the long-term suitability of such a choice and avoid spending too much time on the fixes needed to make cheap character fonts appear well resolved.

Ultimately typefaces like Lobster command attention, they are inflexible and specific in their tone of voice, limited in their suitability and should be used with caution. Helvetica continues to be an effective typeface, its saturated but still thrives within agency design because of its complimentary personality and professional sensibilities. As such it shouldn’t be discarded but considered as part of a wider brand experience, whether that begins as an isolated asset of a small logo-only project or as part of a full branding exercise.

Written by designer Richard Baird
Tweet This Article!
More Articles 

 

  • http://www.thedesigndictatorship.com Salvatore Verazzo

    I absolutely agree. Helvetica is still, and always be, a good choice, but it’s too “simple“. I mean: i’ve seen many designers use helvetica just because nobody can say it’s a bad font, a bad choice. Lobster rapresents a trend, i don’t like trend when we talk about logo design. A logo can’t last forever but to me is better when it isn’t trendy, or fashion, or..whatever. It has to be solid and appropriate.

  • http://www.mikevalentinedesign.com Mike Valentine

    Terrific article. This is something I think most thoughtful designers struggle with as they move ahead in their careers (including myself). With my ever-growing knowledge of design history and a huge appreciation for the purpose driven design solutions that bloomed out of the 50’s and 60’s, it’s often a trade-off between looking “cool” and doing work that is effective for the client and the purpose at hand. As you said – and I believe this to be your strongest point – Helvetica was born out of a design philosophy. We’re seeing history repeat itself as many designers are adopting a pre-modern aesthetic to look trendy without realizing that our industry was born out of the necessity to bring order and efficiency to the same work that they’re trying to emulate. Helvetica, along with modernism, will always be valid because it’s built on a belief, not a just a style. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

  • http://www.richardbaird.co.uk Richard Baird

    Thanks Mike I’m really glad to read the article resonated with you. Did you by any chance read Armin Vit’s opinion on Helvetica? – Why I hate Helvetica

    It’s an interesting counter argument although one I disagree with it’s worth reading.

  • http://www.mikevalentinedesign.com Mike Valentine

    I sure did. That’s why your article really resonated with me. Ever since reading Armin’s opinion, I’ve been considering it’s validity and questioning the use of Helvetica among today’s designers. In the end, I think his argument – while passionate – is pretty weak. I think the Helvetica fight will continue for years to come, which only legitimizes it’s strength.

  • http://shaunsmylski.com Shaun Smylski

    I completely agree with everything you said. However, Helvetica is saturated like no other typeface in its class. The same can be said about Lobster. The fact that many experienced designers are not exploring the other choices (and there are many) shows apathy. As if they don’t feel/know other choices exist. What binds a designer to such a limited taste? OR, is it something else entirely!

    Perhaps the issue is Helvetica’s face is so damn beautiful that designers have fallen madly in love.

    Yes. A mad love affair, like a bad ex you want again and again. The good-looking Blonde, that no matter where she was or what she wore, she never looked terrible. Over and over, you are reminded of her and she never faded from your memory…Timeless you say. But then unlike you, there are those other designers, a young group of deviants. They shout & scream REDHEADS ARE AMAZING! And they salute to freckles.

    I know there’s more to this story then what I am saying, but this comment has to end at some time soon, so in conclusion.

    Does it make sense that the soul of a brand be non-specific, neutral, faceless, and transferable? What about personality, character, and an old withered life whose story can whip you dead on the crotch? Will a smack like that always send you crying into the arms of Helvetica? Or do you try harder to make it work? Helvetica is too perfect for the youth of today. They want humanity, not perfection. They are not born from necessity; they are not here for order or efficiency. They only want to feel free and alive. Then years later they will want the opposite, so why did I even bother saying anything. I guess all I needed to say is that I would love a threesome to happen between me, Helvetica and Lobster. Thank you for bearing this self-realization with me.

  • http://www.richardbaird.co.uk Richard Baird

    Thanks for the comment Shaun, great read.