Look around you. It’s likely that some manifestation of Helvetica won’t be too far away. Since its launch in 1957, it’s become the go-to type for company logos and transport hubs, making it one of the most widespread designs of all time.
But like every icon, Helvetica divides opinions, and many designers consider it unoriginal, uninspired and unattractive.
So why has it ruled the world for more than 60 years?
The right name
“The original name sucked,” said Shaw. The name Helvetica, which means “Swiss” in Latin as a homage to its country of origin, was adopted in 1960 to make it easier to sell it abroad.
And so it did: “Helvetica gets its first kick because the Germans come up with a great name and make it available in the two mechanisms of the day, machines and foundry type, so that anybody could buy it.”
“Standard as a name was brilliant, but it also caused problems, because people started saying ‘We’ll just use the standard typeface’ and those who were not designers took that literally to mean whatever we’ve been using for everything else. That’s how Helvetica accidentally slipped through the cracks,” said Shaw.
The right look
Helvetica’s creators, graphic designer Max Miedinger and his boss, Eduard Hoffmann, wanted a neutral and versatile design. It had to be a modern-looking “sans-serif” type, without the extending features at the end of strokes that were common in the print world.
The right brand
Helvetica wasn’t an immediate hit in Europe, although it was available there first.
But it didn’t take long before it became the standard for advertising and corporate branding in the US: “In 1967 it creeps into the design for the Yankee Stadium,” said Shaw, “And by 1968 it’s everywhere in America — it is the typeface.”
Vignelli chooses it for the American Airlines logo, which will remain untouched until 2013 — one of the most enduring corporate identities of the 20th Century. It ends up — sometimes with minor variations — in countless company logos including those of BMW, Crate&Barrel, Fendi, Jeep, Kawasaki, Knoll, Lufthansa, Mattel, Nestlé, Panasonic, Scotch, Skype, Target, Texaco, Tupperware, and Verizon. NASA paints it on the side of the Space Shuttle. The US government redesigned its tax forms with it.
The classic American Airlines logo design by Massimo Vignelli. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
In 1984, Steve Jobs puts it in the Macintosh: “This was a key move. If Apple didn’t use it, Helvetica would have remained a designer’s preference, same as Times New Roman. Instead, it becomes the default sans serif when sans serif fonts are becoming popular among the populous and not just avant-garde designers,” said Shaw.
The world is conquered: “It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica,” says influential German typographer Erik Spiekermann in the documentary “Helvetica.”
1/6 – Patrick Thomas
The right species
The popularity of Helvetica continues today. It was the system font on the original iPhone, and it remained part of iOS until 2015, when Apple replaced it with its own San Francisco.
In Venice, Arial is replacing Helvetica in some Vaporetto signage, such as the word ‘Rialto’ here. Credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
However, it’s not easy to get a kind word on Helvetica from designers: The fact that people didn’t feel passionate about it in retrospect is interesting,” said Shaw, “It’s not a terrible typeface, it’s just heavily overrated.”
According to Shaw, there was not a lot design-wise that made it better than either Standard or Univers, its great rival that was released in the same year.
“I am not a big fan of Helvetica, but I admire its ability to spread and take root worldwide,” said Lupton.
“It is an invasive and drug-resistant species that may never be eradicated. Even designers who don’t often use Helvetica in their own work take pride in the fact that it is such a persistent cultural icon.”