The history and evolution of the font Helvetica

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Helvetica: the story of a font adored by brands

Love it or hate it, Helvetica is one of the world’s most commonly used fonts, both in advertising and publishing and in urban signage. But to what does it owe its success and its widespread usage, and how has it changed over the years?

In this article we will start by looking at its invention way back in 1957, before going through the various milestones and restyles that have seen it become many international brands’ go-to typeface.

Helvetica’s origins

As its name suggests (based on ‘Helvetia’, the Latin word for ‘Switzerland’), Helvetica was created in Switzerland, when Eduard Hoffmann, director of the Haus foundry in Münchenstein, decided to commission freelance designer Max Alfons Miedinger to create a new font. His aim was to counter the success of Akzidenz Grotesk, the typeface launched by their competitors, the H. Berthold AG foundry.

In 1957, Miedinger came up with a new set of characters, which he named Neue Haas Grotesk. It was a sans serif font with a linear, simple and elegant design, and this no-frills look meant it was extremely legible.

Eduard Hoffmann’s notes documenting the creation of the font Neue Haas Grotesk. Copyright: http://www.fontbureau.com

Technically speaking, Neue Haas Grotesk had several interesting features: the negative (white) space surrounding the letters and the lines comprising the font were perfectly balanced, and the strokes were always horizontal or vertical, and never diagonal, creating a visual effect that was simultaneously bold and neutral.

Mike Parker, the man who changed Helevetica’s fate

In 1959, Mike Parker was appointed director of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, an American firm that sold Linotype typewriters, the first machines to automatically assemble rows of characters. Parker was given the task of expanding the font library owned by the company, and between 1959 and 1981 he managed to add almost 1,000, in many cases adapting pre-existing fonts to suit the technical demands of the Linotype machines.

In 1960, Parker decided to adopt Neue Haas Grotesk, and asked Arthur Ritzel, a designer from D. Stempel AG – a German firm that worked in partnership with the Lynotype Company – to redesign and develop the family of fonts. This new font was renamed Helvetica.

Reproduction of the Helvetica font. Copyright: identifont.com

The font instantly became an icon of Swiss design, which at the time was seen to epitomise understated elegance and functionality, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s it appeared on numerous advertising posters and billboards across Europe and the USA.

A 1970s poster advertising Coca Cola.

The New York metro map

Towards the end of the 1960s, Helvetica was chosen by the designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda to create the new signage for the New York Metro and the Graphic Standards Manual, one of the most famous visual identity manuals in the history of graphic design. The font remained one of Vignelli’s trademark features, significantly boosting Helvetica’s international renown.

The Graphic Standards Manual, designed by Vignelli and Noorda. Copyright: https://standardsmanual.com.

The first restyling and its entry into the digital world

1983 saw the release of Neue Helvetica, an updated version of the font created by Linotype’s graphic design studio, with extra spacing between the numbers and heavier punctuation marks to improve legibility.

The following year, Steve Jobs decided to include it in the fonts available on the first Macintosh, paving the way for the spread of the digital version of the typeface.

A font loved (and hated) by designers

So why has Helvetica been so successful? Its appeal undoubtedly stems from its versatility, modern appearance and understated elegance, which make it suitable for everything from posters and instruction manuals to art catalogues.

On the other hand, it’s ubiquity in the world of publishing and advertising has drawn a lot of criticism, and it has become synonymous with standardisation. One of its leading detractors is Bruno Maag, a Swiss type designer and owner of Daalton Maag, a London-based foundry that has created fonts for companies including Lush, Nokia and HP.

In an interview published on the website Eye on Design, Maag criticises the font’s ubiquity: “Designers use Helvetica because it’s the lazy choice. And second it’s also the safe choice. It creates a homogeneity about all the brand and identity work you see.”

It is certainly true that the typeface continues to appear in the marketing campaigns and logos of a huge number of companies, including Lufthansa, Nestlé, Panasonic, Microsoft and leading car manufacturers like BMW and Jeep, to name but a few. Its digital version is also employed in the user interfaces of the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.

Some logos made with the font Helvetica. Copyright: www.graphicpear.com.
Some of the items displayed at the ’50 Years of Helvetica’ exhibition at MoMA in New York. Copyright: moma.org

In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of its invention, the font starred in a documentary film entitled ‘Helvetica’ directed by Gary Hustwit. That same year it was also given its own exhibition, ’50 years of Helvetica’, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The future of Helvetica

In an article published in Adweek magazine in 2012, Steve Hicks, then creative director of the American ad agency McGarryBowen, predicted a further expansion of the use of Helvetica. He believed that the font’s use on one of the most commonly used social networks in the world, Facebook, would lead to it being used ever more widely in the advertising sector, creating Helveti-Topia, an era in which the typeface would rule supreme in the advertising world.

Although fortunately Hick’s prophesy has not come true, and creative professionals across the world continue to draw on different fonts for their projects, it nevertheless seems that Helvetica is destined to stick around for quite some time yet. Indeed, in 2019, Monotype Studio commissioned a restyling of the font, the most radical update since the now distant 1983.

The manifesto for the new font Helvetica Now. Copyright: monotype.com

Helvetica Now is available in three different versions: Micro for small screens, Text for normal text and Display for larger formats. Each size comes in 48 different weights, from a thin line to extra black. The shapes of the characters appear better spaced and more legible, even on small electronic devices.

The release of this new version makes us think that Helevtica still has a long future ahead of it, with plenty of pages of its history still to be… ahem… written!

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