Happy Birthday, Helvetica!

J.J. Marsh

Printblock image by Brandon Carson, Creative Commons CC-BY 2.0

This year, this iconic font celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Internationally appreciated for its clarity, it has been used by 3M, American Airlines, American Apparel, Apple, BMW, CNN, Gap, Hoover, Jeep, JCPenney, Lufthansa, Microsoft, Mitsubishi Electric, NASA, New York’s subway, Orange, Target, Toyota, Panasonic, Motorola, Kawasaki, Tupperware, the US government, Verizon Wireless and Zanussi.

So what’s the story?

Münchenstein, 1956. Eduard Hoffman, the director of Swiss company Haas Type Foundry, was looking for a new typeface to challenge his competitors.

Max Miedinger, a typesetter who trained in Zürich, spent ten years in the advertising department of Globus before landing a sales position at Haas Type Foundry. When he left to go freelance, Hoffman did not forget his ex-employee’s talents.

In late 1956, Hoffman commissioned Miedinger to come up with a font which had to be clear and communicative ‘with no intrinsic meaning of its own’.

Miedinger got to work. Following his brief he designed a sans serif font entitled ‘Neue Haas Grotesk’. It worked. Understated, functional, compact and neutral, it was the essence of Swiss modernity.

When German parent company Stempel decided to market the new typeface, a name less associated with a particular company was required. With a nod to its origins, they decided on Helvetica.

The font has evolved into an entire family and spawned a feature length film, countless academic studies, books, debates, international exhibitions and even hate groups due to its significance and/or ubiquity.

It is regarded as safe, reassuring, unimaginative, dispassionate, trustworthy, unadventurous but undoubtedly effective.

“Helvetica gives off the impression that you’ve got your life together” – complex.com

“It is removed from the continuity of the human writing tradition that serif, Egyptian, modern, humanist, geometric and many other schools grow from—albeit in very different and sometimes more theoretical ways.” – Vinney T

“ … on the streets of the world, the font is like oxygen. You have little choice but to breathe it in.” – Simon Garfield

“What it’s all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape—the figure-ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters.” – Mike Parker

“Syntax or Frutiger work far better than Helvetica, which remains self-enclosed and constipated-looking.” Alistair Johnson

“Its beauty is its profound versatility. Helvetica is a perfectly cut gray suit. It’s timeless and unassuming … It is respectable, well-groomed and disinterested, the very image of unbiased moderation.” – John Rushing

Personally, I have a great deal of affection for Helvetica. It reminds me of trying to write between the lines in primary school. I love the pot-bellied letter a, like an old man in dungarees. Capital letter R conjures a horse stepping over a log. Number 1 is a duck or submarine, with a beak/periscope I wish would revolve. The whole set is solid and chunky. If any one of those letters stood at your height, you’d never push it over.

Many similar fonts have emerged, such as Arial, to represent no-nonsense business communication. There are subtle differences and you can even test your own font knowledge via this little quiz. http://www.ironicsans.com/helvarialquiz/

Helvetica to me is classically Swiss. Functional and clean with its own little quirks.

So cheers, Helvetica and Many Happy Returns!

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Red featured image/banner image courtesy Filip.vyska, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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