Helvetica (the movie)

Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann designed the font Helvetica.

The eye of a designer sees much more than most other people. Walking around the streets of New York City, a businessman might not look around and see all of the typefaces and signage that surrounds him. He probably wouldn’t notice that a majority of these posters, advertisements, and signs feature the font Helvetica. Helvetica is arguably the most used typeface in the world. It crosses some boundaries to call it the most popular, functional, significant, or successful, font because it is extremely controversial in the field of graphic design. Helvetica is a sans-serif typeface designed by Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann. It was originally created in 1957 and went by the name Neue Haas Grotesk. Neue Haas Grotesk was developed by the Haas Type foundry which was controlled by Stempel and Linotype foundries. It was actually the Stempel Type Foundry which suggested the name ‘Helvetica’, meaning ‘Swiss’ in Latin. The typeface was widely successful upon its release for its ability to promote the modernist movement.

Helvetica was designed during a time when many designers were seeking idealism. Following World War II, designers found it their social responsibility to push for rebuilding through modern movements in design. This idealist movement was driven by swiss designers such as Miedinger and Hoffmann who created Helvetica for the purpose of rationality, clarity, and legibility in text. In the 1950’s print design was very eclectic. Posters, magazines, and advertisements included typefaces which were very expressive such as cursive or script lettering. Moving forward into the 1960’s, designers sought refinement in simple, bold, and clear lettering, and Helvetica was the answer. Corporate identities, business logos, and public facilities were redefined by labeling with Helvetica lettering. Helvetica has been used universally for almost 60 years and it continues to be a staple in graphic design. Many professionals either adore the font or wonder where the magic is in it. The typeface has become so controversial that it is really up to personal opinion to define its value.

Helvetica has a very unique presence to its viewer and many designers debate its value as a typeface. It was purposefully designed to be very neutral so that it could convey the content of the text simplistically. Some find great value in this neutrality, for example graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who believes that type shouldn’t be expressive. Vignelli is a big fan of Helvetica and used it for his branding design for American Airlines. The logo is simply the words American Airlines written in blue and red. He sees the spacing between the letters and coloration of the text as far more expressive than the actual typeface. Helvetica has been used as branding for hundreds of other corporations and even signage in big cities like New York City and London. It is also a part of many governmental organizations. The IRS, EPA and NASA all use Helvetica to make their objects and documents look clean, professional, efficient, and accessible. Helvetica is so commonly used that many designers recognize it as a necessary part of everyday life. But others think that is the reason that it is undesirable. Paula Cher, a renowned graphic designer, finds connotations with Helvetica that relate it to the war and she seeks more hand-drawn or expressive typefaces for her work. Although Helvetica is still used frequently today there was a backlash against it in the 1970’s. Designers thought the type was overused and commercialized so they developed grunge fonts. But eventually those faded out as well and Helvetica remained a universally used font.

I personally think that Helvetica is a very valuable font. There aren’t many designers who can develop a typeface that becomes so standardized and recognizable as Helvetica. I think Miedinger and Hoffmann deserve an incredible amount of credit for the unity they created among society through a new concept design for our alphabet. Helvetica was designed to create unity after the war and today it is used so frequently that it actually represents unity. Designers recognize Helvetica as a standard, or a go-to font. Some designers limit themselves to only use about 3 fonts in their career and many of them include Helvetica in those limitations. I think Helvetica is a very good font for conveying a body of text simply and powerfully. It is a font with an extremely simple design, but that doesn’t limit it at all, instead it allows the viewer to have an even more open interpretation. I also value Helvetica because I prefer sans-serif fonts for their simplicity and legibility. I think they look more modern and add an element of cleanliness to a design. Helvetica is a staple sans-serif font. It is used all of the time and everywhere we go. It is hugely successful in my opinion because I can’t think of a font that would ever surpass Helvetica in its public usage.

Many designers, including myself, wonder what the future holds for the font Helvetica. Will it continue to be used at such immense frequency? Would New York City ever consider changing the subway signs and street signs to a different font? What would the world look like without Helvetica in the future? In my lifetime, Helvetica has always been present. I see it on street signs, public facilities, businesses signs, posters, and advertisements every single day. But it wasn’t always so abundant, in fact it didn’t exist until 1957. Some designers wonder at how any font design could ever prove itself as stronger or better than Helvetica. There is something about it that is just so right. They even say that it is not about the actual letters but the spacing in between them that makes Helvetica so successful. This leads me to wonder what we can learn from Swiss designers Miedinger and Hoffmann who created Helvetica, the font that pushed the Modernist movement of design. I continue to wonder, Helvetica is about 60 years old so is it really that modern anymore? What would today’s modern font look like? And who will design it? Typography designers are working with these questions everyday and I will continue to ponder them throughout my education and career in graphic design.



“Helvetica-Film.” Wikimedia, upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/d/d4/Helvetica-film.JPG.

Hustwit, Gary, director. Helvetica. NewVideo, 2007.

“Max-Miedinger-Hoffmann-Helvetica.” Grapheine, www.grapheine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/max-miedinger-hoffman-helvetica.jpg.

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • Deb 01/27/2018 on 3:14 PM

    Does anybody have a favorite example of Helvetica in use? I think one of mine would have to be the Mikser Festival in 2012—the identity uses Helvetica and the idea of ‘printing mistakes’—-so anti-Helvetica!
    See: https://www.designspiration.net/save/2407026346883/

  • Russell Flinchum 01/28/2018 on 12:33 PM

    Out of Gary Huswit’s documentaries, I still think this is the strongest (the sensory overload part works really well here). There were parts of Objectified that I objected to for his facility in condemning consumption…well, some consumption is going to take place regardless, and if the Monobloc Virus chair is the worst thing design has released upon the modern world, it also gave us a living and universal definition of “marginally acceptable.”

  • Krithika Sathyamurthy 02/04/2018 on 11:34 AM

    Check out this Design Matters Podcast with Debbie Millman interviewing Massimo Vignelli (http://www.debbiemillman.com/designmatters/massimo-vignelli/). She asks him if it’s true that he only uses four typefaces: Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded and Helvetica. He admits to these “rumors” and goes on to talk about how most type is junk. He than describes junk as “trendy, phony, insensitive,” etc. He also speaks to his disapproval of using type as a decorative element and how he’s horrified of type deformation. Definitely an entertaining interview to listen to.

Sorry, but commenting has been disabled.