I Want My Helvetica: MTV's Millenial-Friendly Minimalist Design

For a less outwardly rebellious, small-screen-using generation, design director Jeffrey Keyton overhauled the network's visuals to be striking, bold, and clean—while still irreverent.


A lot has changed since MTV went live in 1981, when Bob Pittman and his team of talented upstarts put music videos on millions of TVs and George Lois put "I WANT MY MTV" on everyone's lips. Most famously: There's not many music videos played on the network these days. Less remarked upon but perhaps more intriguing: The shift in the network's graphic design.

Recall, if you can, the typography back in the day: the era of the raucous marker-drawn M logo designed by Pat Gorman, Frank Olinsky, and Patti Rogoff of Manhattan Design and street-style. Then came the "winky dink" typography of the '90s. Now there's been what Jeffrey Keyton, network design director for more than 25 years, calls "the Helveticazation" of the brand. The new clean-but-brash style represents a new generation's sensibilities—and, of course, MTV's enduring commitment to evolving with the times.

"There's something alive about eggplant letterforms set against a pale pink," Keyton says.

"You'd have to be heavily sedated to not anticipate change," he says. "Especially for our audience, which demands it. MTV feeds off change. It lives and flourishes because of it. And all that change is a big part of what inspires our design."

MTV was born from the noisy collision of music and design, which is what made it so exciting for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. But as these age cohorts turned to HBO, Lifetime, and AMC, "We reached an inflection point when our eclectic identity of the past was getting lost in the cluttered visual landscape of the world today," Keyton says. "It became pretty clear that we had to be more consistent and visually unified to stand out and be remembered. We also needed to communicate that we were a new MTV, by doing something bold and different."

The redesign that Keyton is responsible for was more modern and minimalist, centered around the ubiquitous, white-bread Helvetica typeface. Keyton says he loves the neutrality of the typeface, as well as its functionality, readability, accessibility, and the matter-of-fact way it communicates ideas and provides essential navigation for MTV's audience. "And especially," he says, "that it doesn't get in the way of content, which ultimately is what it's all about."

Color is a big part of the font face's virtue. Helvetica's boldness and clarity lends itself quite well to nearly any hue. "There's something alive about eggplant letterforms set against a pale pink," Keyton says by way of example. "For episodic work, we brought white space back to television with clean black type surrounded by a lot of negative space. You still don't see a lot of that on TV. We also wanted to combat all the 3-D gobbledygook flying around the television landscape. A lot of that stuff looks like someone's just throwing up on the screen."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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