A Typeface for All Time
Hardworking helvetica gets the message across
It may look like the name of a hard rock band, but the beauty of Helvetica is that metaphorically speaking, it hardly makes a sound. Helvetica is a typeface, or more appropriately, the typeface of the 20th century. And, surely, it is the only typeface ever to have its 50th birthday observed with a major museum exhibit and an award-winning independent film.
"Helvetica is really a standout," says Christian Larsen, curator of the exhibition on the history of Helvetica at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "It helped define the typographic look of the 20th century, and I think it is here to stay."
It is certainly ubiquitous, if sometimes in a Big Brother sort of way. Hundreds of firms set brand names in its strong, straight lines, from icons of stability like 3m, Microsoft, and Sears to upstart retailers like American Apparel and Comme des Garçons. New York's signage, including that of its subway system, is set in Helvetica, as is virtually every lighted exit sign in every building in the country. The U.S. government is so sure of Helvetica's ability to lead that the typeface has become the default font for tax forms.
Helvetica wasn't always a leader. In fact, when the Swiss-run Haas Type Foundry first tried to compete with the popular Akzidenz Grotesk typeface in 1957, its attempt landed with a bit of a thud. The somewhat austere typeface, originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, was only modestly successful at gaining converts until four years later when the company rebranded itself with the strong, simple name that means Switzerland in Latin.
Modernist. Whether because of the branding or the growing movement of modernist design, Helvetica soon took off as the typeface of choice for a new generationfirst as a favorite in advertising, then in 1985 becoming the choice of the masses. That was the year Apple introduced a Macintosh computer with Helvetica as one of its five fonts. Helvetica suddenly seemed the natural choice for a new century as well.
"Helvetica was introduced at a moment where postwar optimism was at its highest, at a time whenpre-Vietnam, pre-Watergatepeople had real confidence in modernism and modern institutions to solve the world's problems," says Michael Bierut, a partner in Pentagram, a New York design firm. It was "a beautifully machined, rationally resolved, entirely modern typeface that seemed absolutely suited to its times."
Not everyone is so generous, of course. In Lars Müller's book Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface, Wolfgang Weingart, a leader in experimental typography known as the father of "Swiss Punk," sniffed that anyone who uses Helvetica must know nothing about typefaces. He calls it "the epitome of ugliness."
And even those who do see its beautiful neutrality are sometimes given pause by its use. Tom Geismar, a well-known New York designer, noted that Helvetica is "like a good screwdriver; a reliable, efficient, easy-to-use tool. But put it in the wrong hands, and it's potentially lethal."
That, of course, can be said about most typefaces, orwith typefaces now popping up like mushrooms on a logof many typefaces. But when it is used correctly, the beauty of any typeface, including Helvetica, is its ability to facilitate message delivery, its role as a mass communicator, an unseen persuader that helps readers understand both the message and the messenger. Like most typefaces, Helvetica "works its magic on an entirely subconscious level," says Bierut. "Its ubiquity and inherent authority are inescapable," he adds, noting that "if it's important to people's daily lives, it's largely without their knowledge or consent."