Helvetica: A Documentary Film

A typeface of every age or the monotone voice of the type world. The creation of Helvetica, originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk, by Miedinger and Hoffmann sparked a queue of modernist type standard and of eventual controversy. In an age of reconstructing the design standard, Helvetica was birthed out of Münchenstien, Switzerland as a solution to the want for a modern, legible, clear typeface that could be used anywhere. Street signs, logos, posters, blogs, t-shirts etc. Designers’ use of Helvetica can be seen in many places around us and continues to be a beloved font by many designers. However, where there is love there is also hate or at least boredom with the revolutionary font.

Lovers of Helvetica, like Wim Crouwel and Massimo Vignelli, see simplicity as key when designing and favor the use of minimal fonts. Some, like Crouwel, even only stick to a select few in which they create their designs from. In a time where simple and sleek design was in, these designers used Helvetica to rebrand companies around the United States to end the era of hand lettered, cursive, and flamboyant “fakery” in advertising typography. Crouwel himself even said that a typeface “shouldn’t have a meaning in itself.” This quote, to me, embodies the modernists’ use of typography as logos, advertisements, signage, etc. were reconstructed under this new idea of unity and neutrality.

As the modernist movement continued, a new age began to develop as another generation of designers who had been surrounded by Helvetica felt like they had seen it enough. Designers, especially David Carson and Paula Scher, wanted to step out of the bounds of modernist design and use expressive typography to create emotion and reaction in contrast to the modernist use of uniform simplicity to evoke emotion. To postmodernist designers, Helvetica is a bland, overused font that has simply become a “default” in a sense. The use of multiple typefaces, the conglomeration of type in different manners, and grudge typography became popular and acted as a break from the uniformity seen with modernism. For those who lived and breathed Helvetica and modernism, this new style was atrocious.

David Carson here is describing the lack of descriptiveness found in the words he has posted on the board, of which are typed in Helvetica.

In regard to both the modernists and postmodernists, many agree that Helvetica is a ubiquitous font and I would say the same. It is a timeless classic. However, I also agree with Neville Brody and Tobias Frere-Jones that different typefaces promote different emotional responses in the viewer. For me, Helvetica cannot say everything and should not be used for everything, but the font does have its purposes. While to some Helvetica can say everything (in a way), I don’t believe it should. There is room for neutrality and simplistic design, but there is also a need for something different and to be something outrageous, something eye-catching and powerful in its own way. One thing from the video that definitely caught my attention was when David Carson said that you shouldn’t “confuse legibility with communication.” I have always been taught that text should be readable and make sense when you look at it on a page, however, I had never thought of the power of making something slightly less legible or extremely illegible to create a statement or express something much deeper than with way the words actually say. To me, while Helvetica is great, it is like syrup. It shouldn’t go on everything.


Discussion — One Response

  • Shyann Warren 01/27/2019 on 9:20 PM

    The ending to this post is humorous and perfectly sums up this font. While researching Helvetica I found that a font originally designed to be neutral and plain, has a history that is both enriching and elaborate. The font was created to have no meaning in itself but to bring to life the words within it. It came in a variety of styles such as ultra light, thin, light, roman, medium, bold, heavy, and black. Each style created regularity and consistency in look, yet made a great impact on the world through the items it appeared on. I found it interesting that in 2008, the Museum of Modern Art created a exhibit solely on Helvetica and its importance throughout a fifty year time period. I also found it funny how in 2011, Google celebrated April Fool’s Day through having any user who searched Helvetica see results written in Comic Sans font. Through learning about this font, I thought it was neat to see how type has played such a large role in history.

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