Helvetica: Jane Doe

An image of smartwater.

A real-world example of Helvetica in my apartment.

The san-serif typeface Helvetica was designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann at the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland.  It was created in the post-World War II era of modernism in Switzerland.  It was originally named after the typefaces that inspired it and named Neue Haas Grotesk before a name change by a parent companies Stempel and Linotype to Helvetica, which is a slight alteration of Switzerland in Latin.  It was marketed worldwide in 1961 and later adopted by Macintosh on all their computers.

(Side note: Microsoft had Arial designed by another company specifically for them to compete with Helvetica.)

Since its release, Helvetica has changed the typeface landscape.  Helvetica is everywhere.  From signage to businesses to the United States government, Helvetica is used by everyone.  It is a neutral and legible typeface, making it highly sought after and used.  Businesses use it to be neutral and personable.  Signs and the government use it to be easily read and neutral.  It works for nearly all purposes and for everyone.  It is so frequently used that it is familiar and no one notices the frequency at which it is used.

Businesses using Helvetica include Jeep, Knoll, BMW, JCPenney, Toyota, American Apparel, Nestle, Motorola, Panasonic, Lufthansa, and Target.  These businesses are clothing and electronics retailers, candy and food makers, vehicle companies, and more.  Helvetica is so neutral and universal that it works for a diverse range of companies.

Wim Crouwel and Massimo Vignelli believe that this universality of Helvetica is its strength.  Crouwel believes that type should be neutral and any meaning should be in the text, not the typeface.  Vignelli similarly believes that type should not be expressive.  Both designers contributed to the widespread use of Helvetica in logos and signs.

Helvetica’s popularity is also its downside.  Since Helvetica is seen everywhere on everything from businesses to signs to government offices and forms, it becomes invisible.  It stops standing out.  Companies or sign makers that decide to use Helvetica run the risk of the typeface disappearing into the background since it is so ubiquitous and familiar.

Helvetica has many detractors such as Paula Scher, Stefan Sagmeister, and David Carson.  Scher describes Helvetica as fascistic, clean, and corporate.  Sagmeister describes the typeface as boring.  Carson describes the typeface as simple, clean, and boring.  All these designers are concerned with creating designs with meaningful type.  Unlike those who like and use Helvetica, they believe that type can communicate meaning.

Watching the documentary Helvetica was fascinating.  It is incredible just how ubiquitous the typeface really is without even knowing it.  I found that the most interesting part of the documentary.

Typefaces and design are all around us, but we tend to not notice any of it.  This documentary interviewed a variety of different designers and showcased a ton of Helvetica type in our everyday world.  It was really helpful to see and hear from each opinion and see exactly the extent of the problem (yes, problem).

I was glad to hear that I am not the only individual who believes that Helvetica is overrated.  I also believe that it fades into the background and that type can communicate meaning.  I would say that Helvetica still has a place since it is so ubiquitous and so legible, but to use it creatively would not be something that I would consider.

Type communicates just as much as design.  If your typeface is neutral, then that communicates something about your text.  Those are connected.  I understand the beliefs of Crouwel and Vignelli and believe that sometimes type needs to be neutral to communicate certain things, but in creative spaces, type must not be neutral.

The documentary did not have an impact on the design of my project.  If I make any creative changes later, then I might reference it, but I am currently finished with my draft and it is turned in.

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