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037: Helvetica: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Name: Helvetica

Release Date: 1957

Designer: Max Miedinger, Eduard Hoffmann

Classification: Neo-Grotesque Sans Serif

Owned By: Haas Type Foundry

Claim to Fame: The world’s most ubiquitous typeface.

Born out of the need for ‘rational typefaces’ that work in a variety of areas (ex: signage, corporate identity, etc.), it’s legibility is key. It’s interwoven into the very fabric of brands’ identities and of our everyday lives, whether we realize it or not. In fact, it’s probably in your house right now. Let’s start in the bathroom: Oral B. In the kitchen: from Tupperware to Target. In the closet: The North Face, Fendi and Urban Outfitters. In the garage: Jeep, BMW, Toyota, GM. And that’s just scratching the surface. It’s Everywhere. It’s Iconic. It’s Helvetica.

Helvetica was born when the Haas type foundry wanted to make a modernized version of Akzidenz Grotesk (pronounced: ‘Accidents’), a classic 19th Century German sans serif. Helvetica’s original (and not so catchy) name was ‘Die Neue Haas Grotesk’. It was later named ‘Helvetica’ (based on the latin word for ‘Switzerland’) so it could be more easily marketed in the US.

If you haven’t yet seen Helvetica, the feature-length documentary released in 2007 to coincide with Helvetica’s 50th anniversary, it’s worth a watch. It’s an excellent account of the world’s most ubiquitous typeface, Helvetica, that appears in so many different places in our lives.

Helvetica’s success rests on its clarity. Its letterforms are inherently readable and clear. At its core, Helvetica is about the figure-ground relationship (it looks just as good as black text on a white background, as it does in reverse); it has supportive surrounding space. Furthermore, one of the most characteristic things about Helvetica is its horizontal (sliced off) terminals in lowercase a, c, e, g. Typography can be defined as creating order out of letters and Helvetica does just that. It’s a neutral typeface that doesn’t have a lot of meaning in and of itself. It’s kind of like the tofu of typefaces. It soaks up whatever identity it needs to in the context in which it’s placed and the appeal of Helvetica is that it’s open to interpretation. The term ‘typographic voice’ is helpful here, referring to typefaces’ ability to represent the brand. They help with a sort of ‘subliminal prompting’. For example, seeing the same message written in a grunge font vs helvetica is meant to be perceived in different ways.

This helps to explain why Helvetica is so popular in representing the identity of major brands and governments. The letterforms seem neutral and efficient, yet their smoothness reads ‘human’ and more accessible, transparent and accountable. For big companies who are constantly fighting the image that they are oppressive, authoritarian, bureaucratic, communicating in Helvetica provides an undercurrent of associated humanness to underlay their messaging.

Graphic designer, Lars Mueller, describes the typeface this way: “I think I’m right calling Helvetica the perfume of the city. It is something we just don’t notice usually, but we would very much miss it if it wasn’t there.”

Now let’s look at the faces behind the typeface: Max Meidinger and Eduard Hoffmann. Meidinger worked for Hoffmann at Haas type foundry and at this time Haas type foundry was controlled by a German type foundry, Stempel, which was controlled by Linotype. It’s interesting to note that Meidinger wasn’t a designer when he worked for Hoffmann at Haas; he was a salesman. He travelled around Switzerland selling type for the foundry and even though he was a skilled designer, he could make more money selling. In addition to his sales work, Meidinger created the drawings for the Helvetica typeface, however Hoffmann had much more of a role to play in Helvetica’s creation than history books would have us believe (based on type designer, Matthew Carter’s, first hand accounts in the 1950’s and 1960’s).

As part of the Helvetica documentary, famous designers were interviewed and they had mixed emotions and feelings about Helvetica. Let's have a look at the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good: Some designers think that Helvetica’s an excellent typeface and find creative constraint with making it speak different voices. It can be what you want it to be. That there’s as much personality in the spacing as there is on in the letters themselves. Helvetica is what you make it.

The Bad: Not all type designers believe Helvetica is still a great typeface; instead, that it represents the world 70 years ago and has just become a default typeface today. “It’s air.” It’s there. - Erik Spikermann

The Ugly: In the 1970’s, many designers saw Helvetica as oppressive and boring and flat and the face of faceless corporations and decided to change things up. Designer and illustrator, Paula Scher, tied Helvetica to the Vietnam War and wanted to stray far away from it. She began exploring how to use hand-drawn and illustrative typography to give type a personality all of its own for each project. She played a lot with colour and spacing and movement.

Furthermore, David Carson who pioneered grunge typography in the 1980’s and 1990’s (he’s been called the ‘the Godfather of Grunge’ and the ‘Kurt Cobain of Typography’), used this expressive type and hand lettering to rebel against Helvetica. As Carson recalls: “The '80s and '90s typography revolution that thrived on messy, heavy type to express every emotion that the wayward generation of the time was feeling.”

Carson (very much against Helvetica and what it stands for) goes on to explain: “Don’t confuse legibility with communication and just because something’s legible, doesn’t mean it communicates; And more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing… There’s a very thin line between simple and powerful and clean, and simple and powerful and boring.”

Whether you’re for or against Helvetica and what it stands for, one thing is for certain, Helvetica’s has a rival, and her name is Arial.

While Helvetica was designed in the 1950’s (owned by Linotype) and licenced to Apple for use with their operating systems, Arial was designed by Monotype Corporation in 1982 and used in Microsoft’s OS in 1992. One of the goals of Arial was to compete with Helvetica.

As described by type author Ilene Stizver in an article for Creative Pro, “Helvetica is a sharper, crisper design with more stylish details and a slightly more rectangular (or, less rounded) appearance. These traits can be seen in the leg of the cap R, the curved diagonal on the numeral 2, more accentuated stroke endings, and blunt horizontal or vertical end strokes on many characters. Arial is the more rounded of the two designs, with softer, fuller curves, and more open counters. It has an overall less elegant, blander appearance that reproduces well in lower resolutions environments. It also has a diagonal terminal on the t as well as the numeral 1, and a curved tail on the cap Q.”

Whether you like the look of Helvetica or Arial better (or neither!), both are very popular but Arial is more widely used than Helvetica simply because of its widespread availability on Windows computers.

In closing, modern-day type design marvel, Tobias Frere-Jones, likens using the wrong typeface to casting the wrong actor in a role - it will affect your experience. You’ll still follow the plot, but it will be less convincing and/or affected by the production. To further this analogy, a designer choosing typefaces is like a casting director selecting actors for roles, bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘type cast’. Frere-Jones says this: “If you’re not a designer, use Helvetica Bold in one size and it will look good.” And that’s exactly what my favourite show, The Office, did for their logo. Fitting, no?

Thank you Mr. Meidinger and Mr. Hoffmann, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type. From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: let’s take a ZAPF CHANCERY on an important figure in type design.


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