Posters for Helvetica by Gary Hustwit, which turns 10 this year.

Name: Helvetica
Designers: Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman
Foundry: Haas foundry
Release Date: 1957

Back Story:

In the post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a pretty pervasive mentality among designers that their field could and should be part of the efforts to rebuild and reconstruct, moving on with both rationality and idealism from a messy recent history. It was out of this mindset that the Swiss style of graphic design—clean, logical, mechanical in its perfection—became a global phenomenon. It was also out of this atmosphere that Eduard Hoffmann, owner of the Haas foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, and designer Max Miedinger developed the typeface that best represents the movement: Helvetica.

Limited-edition letterpress print of Experimental Jetset‘s “Meet the Cast” design.

 

Exactly 60 years later, the typeface is still a symbol of Modernism to those attuned to such things, but to much of the world it just feels familiar: the font of post office boxes and the default sans on a Mac. In 2007, it also became the unlikely subject of a documentary, shot on a credit-card budget by design doc-maker and VR filmmaker Gary Hustwit, who at that point had never made a full-length film.

Yes, it’s been 10 years since Helvetica became a major film success, and ushered in an era of design movies and documentaries. Now feels like as good a time as any to revisit its timeless star.

Why’s it called Helvetica? 

When Miedinger drew up a typeface to rival Adrian Frutiger’s Univers in 1957, the Haas foundry initially named it Neue Haas Grotesk. According to Matthew Carter, the name came from Hoffmann’s idea to make a modernized version of Akzidenz Grotesk, a traditional 19th century German sans serif. In 1960, the Haas foundry’s German parent company Stempel suggested changing the name to something undeniably Swiss—something like Helvetia, the Latin word that literally translates to “Switzerland.” Haas found it a bit grandiose to name a typeface so directly after his native country, even if it was meant to represent just that. So the foundry added a ‘c’ and voila—catchy yet reasoned; patriotic without being too referential. Also, it was market savvy: “The name Helvetica was purely a marketing decision,” says Hustwit.

 

The plan worked; Helvetica took off. The new name positioned the typeface as synonymous with Swiss cutting-edge typesetting technology and was a no-brainer for those in favor of the new Swiss modernism. The fact that it continued to be popular throughout the next half a century, however, was thanks largely to two populist technologies: first, Helvetica was made available for Linotype, those typesetting machines critical to producing newspapers, ads, and books until their obsolescence in the late ’70s (not coincidentally, the Haas foundry was owned by Linotype). “That was a huge step for getting it into the graphic houses in the U.S.,” says Hustwit. Decades later, when the first Macintosh computer hit the market, Helvetica was bundled with it as a default font for the personal computer. 

What should I use it for?

The word “ubiquitous” gets thrown around a lot these days, but Helvetica truly is—at multiple points in Helvetica, designers of all opinions about the typeface describe it as so widely used that seeing it feels as natural and unremarkable as breathing air. Indeed, Helvetica is ambient and pervasive and absolutely everywhere. It’s used by big corporations like American Airlines, British Gas, Muji, and until recently IBM. Bloomingdale’s, Gap, Knoll, BMW, Verizon, Urban Outfitters, Nestlé, Lufthansa, and Saab have all use it. It’s the official typeface of public services like the U.S. postal service or on IRS tax forms. It’s probably somewhere in your line of sight right now. 

Part of its charm is its inoffensiveness. Helvetica is appropriate for most occasions because it’s probably been used for that exact occasion before. “There’s a quote in the film from Manuel Krebs of Norm, who says something like ‘If you’re not a designer, or you’re not a good designer, use Helvetica bold in a flyer and it’ll look good,” says Hustwit. “Use it in one size, one weight, and just pipe out what you want to get across.” 

So use it for anything. You could also take a page from Massimo Vignelli’s book and use it for everything. Vignelli employed Helvetica for his 1967 American Airlines identity, which stayed in place until 2013. He applied it to his new identity for the signage of New York’s ailing subway system in the early 1970s, for which it’s still used. Vignelli was at the forefront of modernist corporate identity design, and was a master at distilling large, multi-pronged companies with different bureaus and departments and visual languages into one cohesive, systematic identity. Though standard practice now, it was revolutionary in the middle of the 20th century when Vignelli was a pioneering force, and thus required a font that was considered to be a visible expression of Modernism itself. “When Helvetica came about we were all ready for it,” Vignelli says in the film. “It just had all the right connotation that we were looking for, for anything that had to spell out loud and clear: modern.”

Massimo Vignelli. Still from Helvetica by Gary Hustwit.

 

What are its distinguishing characteristics?

Depends on who you ask. Lars Müller called Helvetica “the perfume of the city.” Michael Bierut equated the effect of a corporate redesign in the 1960s that stripped an identity down to a logo in Helvetica as “a clear, refreshing distilled icy glass of water.” Like many Swiss typefaces, Helvetica is determined by the white space around the letters, which crisply defines and “holds in” the black letterforms. This may be best exemplified by the lower case ‘a,’ whose most distinguishing feature is the white center in the the shape of a fat tear drop.

But Helvetica’s Swiss neutrality and rationality work against it for some designers. The same typeface that was considered modern and revolutionary to Vignelli is seen as boring, regimented, and enforcing the status quo by Paula Scher in her interview in the film. “When I was in art school… I had rebelled against the Swiss international style because the act of organizing the Helvetica typeface on a grid reminded me of cleaning up my room,” she says.

Erik Spiekerman feels similarly, and has perhaps the choicest words in the film for Helvetica’s character: “A real typeface needs rhythm, it needs contrast, it comes from handwriting. That’s why I can read your handwriting, you can read mine, and I’m sure our handwriting is miles away from Helvetica or anything that would be considered legible, but we can read it because there’s a rhythm for it, there’s a contrast to it. Helvetica hasn’t got any of that.”

A generation of grunge designers in the ’90s rejected Helvetica for rougher, more stylistic, more experimental type. In some cases, as with David Carson, who created Ray Gun magazine, it was more interesting to rip, shred, and collage together a typeface, even to the point where it was no longer legible, as long as it was expressive and conveyed the feeling of the content. For Carson and other grunge typographers, the problem with Helvetica was that its characteristics aren’t distinguishing at all.

Still from Helvetica by Gary Hustwit.

 

What should I pair it with?

The movie? Hustwit suggests a fine wine. It also works well as a design-nerd litmus test for first dates. But when it comes to the typeface itself, it can be paired with basically anything, and often is. No matter the individual feelings of designers about Helvetica, there’s no denying the typeface’s versatility.

Along with the Modernists who revere Helvetica and the designers who rejected it, a third group attempts to sublimate those two opposing positions into one that uses Helvetica but subverts it in certain ways. As Experimental Jetset puts it in the film, “It’s not that we are against the experimentation that people like David Carson and Emigré and Fuse, that Neville Brody did. We think what we do is a sort of an extension of that.” Over half a century since its conception, Helvetica endures, taking on new lives at the hands of new designers.