I’m a little late to the game, but The Last Word on Helvetica by John Boardley is spot on. It’s well worth a read if you are plagued by the notion of Helvetica being a neutral typeface, or are wondering why some might consider it “the sweatpants of typefaces.” (I do too)
Ostensibly, my only gripe with Helvetica (designed by Max Miedinger & Eduard Hoffmann) is not the typeface itself, but how — and how often — it is pressed into service.
At the real heart of the matter is not only how often Helvetica is used, but how often it’s used as a thoughtless default.
What’s your favorite tool? Hammer? screwdriver? chainsaw? The choice of typeface is decided only when one knows the nature of the job. It does not precede it. And sometimes, Helvetica will be one of the tools adequate for the job. Further narrowing down the field: Claw hammer? ball pein? cross and straight pein? club hammer? sledge hammer? soft-face hammer? But never, when it comes to typefaces, can we narrow the field to a single typeface — your typographic soul-mate does not exist in any one typeface. The final selection is a subjective choice made from a field of worthy and appropriate contenders. Never, ever, ever, by a process of elimination, do we arrive at Helvetica. But we might arrive at, say, a typeface with neo-grotesk or grotesk attributes, of which Helvetica is but one example.
I’ll stop there before I just quote the whole article, but a big thank you to John for putting words and reason to this.