typography August 9, 2019

Helvetica: the story of the most famous Swiss typeface

Either you love or hate typography and Helvetica’s font in particular, chances are you have used it at least once.
But why is Helvetica the designers’ font by default? And why does it provoke such mixed responses from designers worldwide?
Huge, different companies such as MUJI, Target, Nestlé, and Skype have adopted Helvetica in their logos. Why does it same that everything is Helvetica?

Helvetica’s origins

In the early 60s, old sans-serif typefaces were making a comeback in the design world. One of them being the German type Akzidenz Grotesk.
For this reason, Edüard Hoffmann, director of the Swiss Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, commissioned Max Miedinger, to design an updated sans-serif type.
Hence, in 1957, Die Neue Haas Grotesk was born.

The name wasn’t great, especially considering the international market.
The first idea was to call it Helvetia, the Latin word for Switzerland, but ultimately, decided to call the typeface Helvetica, which means from Switzerland.

Why did Helvetica become so widely used?

This new typeface emerges at a post-second world war reality, one that calls for modernism and rationality.
Swiss design was very popular at this time and largely promoted by advertising agencies in the USA.
Helvetica, in particular, became popular so quickly, due to its legibility and neutrality.

It’s easy to see why it was so widely appreciated by the design community. It doesn’t convey any meaning in itself, and as a result, it’s applicable to very different contexts.
Additionally, it’s a rational and modern, the opposite of the hand-drawn style used in America in the 50s.

For all of the above reasons, Helvetica was quickly used to redesign corporate logos, signage for transportation and city systems, and a part of everything else around the world.
Twenty years later, when Helvetica already was loved (and hated) by so many designers, Apple introduced the Macintosh.

In 1984, Helvetica became Mac’s default font, cementing its ubiquity even further.

Helvetica’s downfall of the ’70s

Since Helvetica became almost the go-to font of big corporations, the newest generation of designers emerging in the ’70s, wanted nothing to do it.
Designers such as Paula Scher and David Carson were trying to oppose its usage purposely.

In the 2007’s documentary film Helvetica, Scher mentions that she associated this typeface with the corporate culture of design, the visual language of big corporations, and as a result, they all looked alike. They all seem fascist in her eyes and so she wanted to go in the opposite direction.

The generation of designers from the psychedelic era wanted to get away from the orderly, clean, sleekness of design. They wanted to break the rules or at least, bend them to their will.
From this point on, Helvetica was no longer the default typeface, sitting on both spectrums of designers’ love/hate relationships.

2019’s Helvetica redesign

This year, Monotype introduced Helvetica Now typeface, a redesign of the traditional type.
I particularly like the previous versions, but this new one promises to be more refined, and elegant than its ancestors.

It also addresses particular needs such as better spacing, shapes, and features like resolution and print.

Conclusion

Love it or hate it, it doesn’t appear to go out of fashion any sooner.
With newer versions such as Helvetica Neue and presently, Helvetica Now, it seems like this typeface will be used by many more designers to come.

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