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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”