Nokia announces Lumia 930, its new Windows Phone 8.1 flagship

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At Microsoft’s Build developer summit today, future subsidiary Nokia has unveiled its new Windows Phone flagship device, the Lumia 930. Serving as true successor to the Lumia 920 (because the 925, 928, 1020 and 1520 just don’t cut it) which debuted in September 2012, the 930 is effectively Verizon’s recent Lumia Icon for a global market, with the relatively uninspired design being improved tremendously by the addition of chromatic rears, including black, white, green and, finally, orange. Continue reading

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Helvetica: The story of the future’s font

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In 1957, one of the most powerful figures of our time was born in a small Swiss town. Though the majority wouldn’t even recognise his name, his countless distinct silhouettes are among the biggest players in the marketing and information spheres. He’s worked with everyone in the music industry from The Beatles to Swedish House Mafia. He’s the only one whose talents are diverse enough to justify appearing in advertisements for everyone from American Airlines to American Apparel and 3M to Verizon without being dismissed as a corporate shill. Every day, hundreds of millions of iPhone users are greeted with his face as they go about their days. And yet, he still frequently appears in public without anyone batting an eyelid. 

For he is Helvetica. He is the typeface of both the 20th and 21st centuries. He is the symbol of modernism, of efficiency, of approachability and of sophistication. You saw him on the way to work this morning. He’s behind you on the fire exit sign. In some places, he’s even on your government documents and public transportation signage. The omnipresent typographical embodiment of Swiss neutrality brought brands into the age of machinery in the 1960s and beyond, forever changing the way we think about marketing and advertising.

There was a simpler time, though.


Helvetica is used by brands as diverse as BMW, Staples and Wickes

Helvetica is used by brands as diverse as BMW, Staples and Wickes

Origins

Max Miedinger

Max Miedinger

Helvetica was created at the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland in 1957, christened Die Neue Haas Grotesk. Its creation is often mistakenly solely credited to Max Miedinger, who was originally commissioned by Eduard Hoffmann, the head of the foundry, to take on Akzidenz-Grotesk, a popular sans-serif typeface from Berthold, one of Haas’ rivals. What this required was a modernisation and rethinking of the Akzidenz character set by the pair, also taking inspiration from Haas’ own Normal Grotesk and Französische Grotesk. Hoffmann was a renowned but shy designer and Miedinger, a designer who had become a travelling foundry font salesman for Haas to boost his bank balance, was on his first major commission for the firm. Knowing Miedinger’s design roots, Hoffmann had promised that they could work together on an idea at some point, and Helvetica, although typically believed to be solely Miedinger’s work, was the child of their collaboration.

Helvetica

Haas, a subsidiary of the German foundry Stempel which in turn was owned by font giant Linotype, was soon coerced into changing the name by Stempel’s marketing director, who saw a future for the font abroad, particularly in the United States. With commerce booming and companies looking to modernise their corporate images. One proposal was Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland, although Hoffmann refused. Instead, he proposed Helvetica, a name that reflected the Swiss roots without going as far as being named after the country whilst also subtly defining it as the Swiss typeface.

In 1896, Akzidenz was one of the first sans-serif fonts to gain any kind of traction or adulation. Together with Helvetica and compadres Univers, Monotype and Franklin Gothic, it forms part of the ‘Grotesque’ typeface classification, affectionately named so for their ‘ugliness’ with naked vertices and clean edges starkly contrasting with more conservative serif-laden typefaces of the era. Designers were beginning to see serifs, the small projections at the edges of letters that occurred during strokes of a pen or brush, as excessively manual relics of typography, ripe for abolition. They were crowing for a machine-driven typeface that oozed a blend of legibility and modernism. Helvetica came along at just the right time.


Massimo Vignelli and wife Lella, pictured in 2010

Massimo Vignelli and wife Lella, pictured in 2010

Rise

Global affection for the Swiss graphic aura throughout the 1950s and 1960s helped lead to Helvetica’s meteoric rise. Much of this can be attributed to Massimo Vignelli, a Milanese designer, and his work between 1966 and 1971 at his firm Unimark International in New York. As the name suggests, Unimark was focused on modernising existing brands under a unified, recognisable umbrella, and Vignelli believed that Helvetica was the optimal typeface for the job thanks to its neutrality, impression and clarity.

Massimo VIgnelli's American AIrlines logo, 1966

Massimo VIgnelli’s American AIrlines logo, 1966

Vignelli’s most iconic rebranding effort came in 1966 when Unimark was tasked with bringing American Airlines into the Helvetica world that was building up at a pace around it. Vignelli is a designer who strongly believes that the spacing around characters gives the type its power and this led him to remove the space between the two words to create an impactful wordmark. Using the red and blue of the American flag for the two words and playing with the white space that surrounded the wordmark (which included a simplified eagle image, much to Vignelli’s chagrin) to complete the patriotic display gave American a recognisable corporate image that stuck around for 47 years. In 2013, as part of a wider effort to shed the image of the airline that had recently filed for bankruptcy, American launched a new brand, although firms including but not limited to Ford, JCPenney and the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority continue to use the Helvetica-dominated brand identities created for them by Vignelli and Unimark in that era to this day.

Such usage of the font in both the private and public sectors have led some to describe Helvetica as ‘the font of capitalism’, but some, including Norwegian-born designer and publisher Lars Müller, feel it is at the other end of the spectrum, calling it ‘the font of socialism’ as it acts as the ubiquitous font for everybody and everything. These connotations, along with the implications of the Swiss design language, make it suitable for governmental usage. Since 1984, the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has since distributed its principal product, tax forms, solely in Helvetica, creating an aura of familiarity, efficiency and modernism, although many would argue that this could not be further from the truth.

Poster for Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary, Helvetica

Poster for Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary, Helvetica

This ubiquitousness has won Helvetica more than its fair share of enemies, however. During an interview for Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica, which celebrated the half centenary of Neue Haas Grotesk, German typographer Erik Spiekermann spoke of his disdain for the ‘default’ font choice, saying: “Most people who use Helvetica, use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner.” Spiekermann continues to speak about how handwriting, while not always as legible as Helvetica and its counterparts, contains a distinct rhythm that Helvetica lacks. He is not alone, as the 1990s saw a distinct shift of favour from modernism to grungier typography, spearheaded by David Carson, former art director of Ray Gun magazine, although recent years have seen a recursive transition back towards cleaner typefaces including Helvetica.


An Arial sign

An Arial sign

Silhouettes

Just as Helvetica spawned partially from Akzidenz, it has also served as the basis of inspiration for many other contemporary fonts and countless imitators. Monotype’s Arial, born in 1982, is an uninspired Helvetica clone that was created when, under contract to IBM to supply fonts for office printers, Monotype decided against licensing Helvetica from rivals Linotype. What followed was a font that was – and is, to this day – evidently trying too hard to be Helvetica but with what little character the original itself held being robbed away. 

Arial in blue, Helvetica in red

Miedinger, Hoffmann and their Swiss contemporaries tended to design their typefaces around the container shapes rather than the letters themselves, as the rigid shapes that the outlines formed would appear capable of supporting the letters without issue. Arial, however, was not cut from the same cloth. Designed with the characters themselves as the main focus, the rigidity just isn’t there. Looking at the capital forms of G and R show the main differences between the two, as Helvetica’s take, with an arrowhead-like support to the G and a subtle kick at the foot of the rectangular R, displays a sharp contrast to Arial’s curved bases and apparent aversion to quadrilateral character containers.

Helvetica itself has, of course, seen changes over its 57 year life. The original Neue Haas Grotesk, created by foundries by designers carving the letters into steel blocks for printing, was designed slightly differently for different font weights and sizes in order to remain both cohesive and clear. Helvetica, its recent digitisations and minor revisions, including 1983’s Helvetica Neue, which is today the most prolific variation, are more digitally-minded and, as such, have a more boxy appearance with redrawn characters at marginally different heights and angles, although still undeniably from the tree of Neue Haas Grotesk.


A typical Helvetica-encrusted shopfront

A typical Helvetica-encrusted shopfront

Full stops

As Helvetica draws ever closer to being able to claim its pension, it’s understandable to wonder whether it will continue to proliferate the typographical world. Part of what makes it the default font choice for so many designers is the fact that it is everywhere. Using a font as recognisable as Helvetica portrays your brand as ‘normal’, as one that will make consumers feel comfortable that they will blend in with their peers, just as Massimo Vignelli intended with the work of Unimark.

Therefore, it’s pretty difficult to imagine Helvetica ever going away. Its omnipresence may win it opposition, but good taste is ubiquitous. Without its iconic appearance, it wouldn’t be the iconic character set that we constantly see today. As Erik Spiekermann said: “It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.”

Apple iPhone 5s review

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I’m sure that you all know by now that Apple has announced their latest addition to their smartphone lineup – the iPhone 5s. As ever with Apple, there has been a lot of hype surrounding this launch, and that has resulted in the fact that some of the sites that have reviewed it haven’t really understood what the phone is about, or what it is trying to be. Some put it down for its “bad” specifications. Others fawned over the device just because it was sent down by the Apple gods from above.. Even though I’m pretty late with this review, hopefully I’ll be able to give my thoughts on the device, and while doing that tell you what this device is really about. Continue reading

Mas#tags: Why #potatoes are the first sign of the apocalypse

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By law I may be a young person, but really I’m a cynical old grouch. For longer than I can remember, I’ve been complaining about society and how we’re all inevitably doomed in one way or another. Usually, if something really provokes me, I’ll blog about it at 3 in the morning, go to sleep, realise that what I’ve written is garbage and send it to the eternal pit of doom that is my drafts folder to decompose.

This time, however, things have started to get personal. Continue reading

Flappy Bird or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bird

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Mobile gaming is a wonderful thing. While it once took a 10 tonne console to escape to another world, where one would typically find a selection of guns, aliens and Italian plumbers, we can now use conveniently portable devices to take us away from our troubles instead. Or allow green pipes to cause even more.

Flappy Bird was the latest avian title to land in our pockets and find surprisingly astronomical success, with a deceptively simple premise and mechanics. A single tap performs a single flap of the wings of a small bird that looks like Kirby with Jay-Z’s lips which, although officially nameless, I affectionately call Flapster.

But why did a game made by a Vietnamese indie developer in a few evenings after work that launched in May 2013 become the most popular mobile game of 2014? The answer lies deep within the struggles of our lives.

Mario uses his raw plumbing tekkers to open wormholes and transcend dimensions with green pipes, but Flappy Bird and its nameless protagonist present a whole new facade to these former allies. He’s not a trained worker. He’s a bird. Pipes are enemies, and serve solely to crush his hopes and dreams with a brutal splat. Should our friend succeed and pass beyond the blockade, life throws up yet another challenge before his eventual death.

Attaching no name or back story to the bird lets us project our own emotions and struggles onto its journey. Life, like Flappy Bird, is not fair. To stand any chance of reaching double figures and cross the obstacles in our paths, we must stay focused and tap carefully. Yes, we may fly face-first into a pipe now and then, but we won’t give up. We will keep tapping. Tapping towards freedom.

Now, as creator Dong Nguyen, with $50k a day in his pocket, withdraws the app from stores and himself from the limelight, lil’ Flapster flies off into the sunset (via a few green pipes, naturally). All we have left are fond memories of the winter of the bird, who taught us it was alright to fail, as long as we got straight back up to seek the bing, and the hours we lost in our quest for a high five.

The Digixav Cryptography Conundrum – Week 1

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Remember me?

I’m back with a new angle of the tech world to interest you! The region of encryptions and ciphers is virtually unknown to most of the general public, but I am going to show you that cryptography is not just hacking people’s e-mails and making “unbreakable” codes. It’s actually quite a fun thing to be into once you have started. I’ll post a new puzzle each Tuesday and release the answer alongside the next puzzle every Tuesday.

Week 1

EJHJYBW – UIF IPNF PG BMM UIJOHT UFDI

Good luck, and have fun! Think you’ve got it? Let us know on Twitter or the Facebook page.