BY Paul Barnes in Profiles | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64


Cutting through the history of Helvetica

BY Paul Barnes in Profiles | 01 JAN 02

Helvetica is everywhere. It is the standard typeface of hospital signage systems, medicine labels, official forms and book jackets and is popular across the whole design spectrum, appearing on everything from parish church notes to the fashionable graphic work of companies such as Octavo, Cartlidge Levene and North. Probably the most generic sans serif typeface ever, Helvetica passes the litmus test of typeface popularity in that it has been copied dozens of times (Swiss, Helvetia, Nimbus, to name just a few) and comes

in every weight from ultra light to black, from condensed to extended, drop shadow and outline. Even the American satirical magazine The Onion has paid it the compliment of mocking its success (

Helvetica's success derives from its anonymous quality. So familiar has it become that it seems commonplace; we no longer give it a second glance. The theme of anonymity is evoked by its very name: in Latin 'Helvetica' means Swiss. The typeface is permanently connected to the 'Swiss style' of graphic design, which is characterized by a preference for photography over illustration, sans serif over seriffed type, and the use of strict grid systems. This was proclaimed (mostly outside Switzerland) as the rational approach to graphic design. As the International Style became the populist face of postwar architecture, so the 'Swiss style' dominated graphic design from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Outside Switzerland, particularly in Germany and the US, Helvetica became the typeface of choice for most graphic designers. Even when Helvetica went out of fashion, it was so widely available from printers and typesetters that it retained its popularity. Then in the 1980s Helvetica was the sans serif bundled with laser printers, which guaranteed its early availability when the desktop publishing explosion occurred in the latter part of the decade. Even today most computers come with a version of Helvetica as standard.

Helvetica only acquired its name in 1961, when Stempel released the typeface in Germany. It first went on sale in Switzerland in 1957, under the less memorable name of Neue Haas Grotesk (Grotesk meaning sans serif). The typeface was born when Edouard Hoffmann, director of the Haas type foundry just outside Basel, decided that the existing Haas Grotesk did not compete well with the current favourites of the Swiss School, Akzidenz Grotesk (a jobbing sans serif) or Grotesque 215. Hoffman approached freelance designer Max Miedinger to update the design. Rather than redo Haas Grotesk, Miedinger created a typeface not unlike Akzidenz but rounder, softer and more refined. Akzidenz had an almost industrial feel; Neue Haas Grotesk was the upmarket alternative.

Ironically, Neue Haas Grotesk was not popular in Switzerland at the time of its release. Much more evident on Swiss posters of the late 1950s to mid-1960s is Akzidenz or hand-drawn lettering. During the same period the newly released Univers, designed by Adrian Frutiger, a French-Swiss typographer living in Paris, had become the preferred typeface at Switzerland's main design college in Basel. Univers had a number of advantages over Helvetica. Designed in the late 1940s, it had been conceived as a complete family to be released in one go (Helvetica was initially available only in medium, light, bold and italic). Univers was also available for mechanical composition and seemed to be more contemporary than either Helvetica or Akzidenz. It was only after its renaming and its success abroad that Helvetica made a real impact in its country of birth. By then numerous other faces had been added to the family, none of which had been designed by Miedinger. It is said that he became a bitter man; certainly he had not foreseen the ubiquity of his creation and was probably paid a flat fee for the design. While Frutiger became a lauded figure, Miedinger disappeared into obscurity and died in Zurich in 1980.

The success of Helvetica outside Switzerland in the 1960s was assured when it was adopted by a number of progressive designers and companies in Europe: Unimark International in Italy, Germano Facetti at Penguin Books, Otl Aicher for Lufthansa and the Design Research Unit for British Rail (who asked Margaret Calvert to draw a Helvetica look-alike) are the most obvious examples. Outside Europe, Helvetica rapidly gained a foothold and non-Latin versions quickly appeared.

Helvetica is probably not a favourite of type connoisseurs; they prefer the more cultured Univers or the gutsier Akzidenz. But, like Times New Roman, Helvetica is a populist typeface, beyond the limits of aesthetic criticism. Familiarity removes our ability to judge. Like many classic typeface designs, Helvetica is a victim of later revisions. Originally made in metal, contemporary versions look correct, but their details are radically different. Even Linotype's Neue Helvetica of 1983 seems to lack the subtleties of the original. But these are the complaints of purists, and whatever they may say, Helvetica is unlikely to disappear just yet.