Helvetica: a love story
Born in 1957, Helvetica was a centrepiece of the functional and communication design trend that defined the visual language of the 1960s. Helvetica’s enduring value is a product of its balance, neutral design and outstanding marketing.
No other typeface has gained so much recognition and enjoyed cult status across a host of countries and cultures for over 60 years. So how did it all begin?
For nearly 400 years after Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in 1436, little changed in the way printing was done: physical metal blocks of varying sizes and weights were manually arranged and then pressed down into sheets of paper. It was only after the introduction of the Mergenthaler Linotype composition machine that the printing process took its modern form. The Linotype machine enabled the casting of metal type in full lines, dramatically reducing the time and effort required to print text. The machine rapidly became the industry standard for typesetting. Around the same time, the Lanston Monotype machine was also introduced, which could set complete lines of text in individually cast blocks. Linotype and Monotype would go on to revolutionise the typesetting market in the 20th century.
Among the trends of the printing market, Akzidenz-Grotesk designed in 1896 by Günter Gerhard Lange at the Berthold Type Foundry was the most sought-after typeface until the early 1900s. (In typography, both the German “grotesk” and French “sans serif” refer to typefaces without decorative extensions.) In the history of graphic arts after the advent of sans serif, the most significant pioneering moment was the New Typography Movement ignited by Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typographic in 1928. Tschichold, a typographic visionary, was born in Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig was a city where the typography industry was highly advanced, and Tschichold developed his passion for type under his father, who was also a type designer. Deeply influenced by the first exhibition by Bauhaus, the centrepiece of modernism in 1923, Tschichold established the belief that all typography should have a clear purpose and serve as a means to convey information efficiently. He considered sans serif the most appropriate typeface for the times, and advocated the exclusive use of simple and functional sans serif typefaces. The effect of his typographic principle would appear in a range of publications. Bauhaus weiled tremendous influence in architecture, painting and design, and the New Typography Movement provided the typefaces in which the manifesto of modernism was written, ushering in the invention of new types – Helvetica included.
In the 1950s, following the boom in the printing industry, the evolution of typography, and the post-war desire for reconstruction, there was a thirst within creative communities for a new typeface that could effectively visualise the principles of modernism with a focus on neutrality and efficiency. In response, type foundaries released a stream of new designs, including Univers, by Adrian Frutiger, and Folio, from the Bauer Type Foundary. In the meantime, Eduard Hoffmann, head of the Haas Foundry, saw the sales of his company’s Haas Grotesk typeface decline dramatically as its rivals gained more popularity. Needing a breakthrough, he prioritised the development of a new sans serif.
Haas was a type foundry with a history dating back to 1580. Helvetica was a product of thorough marketing by Haas. Along with Eduard Hoffmann, Max Miedinger was also behind the creation and production of the typeface. Miedinger was a multi-talented free-agent, who worked as a typesetter, salesperson, type designer, graphic artist and advertising consultant. Hoffmann saw great potential in Miedinger, and in 1956 began work on the development of a new typeface based on the traditional Haas Grotesk.
In June that year, Hoffmann introduced the completed typeface at the Graphic 57 Trade Fair in Lausanne. Frutiger’s Univers was unveiled at the same fair, making it the debut stage both for the font that would become Helvetica, and its greatest rival.
Hoffmann adopted an aggressive marketing strategy, giving commissions in exchange for the use of Neue Haas Grotesk in promotional brochures. The Swiss chemical company Geigy, which later became Novartis, adopted Neue Haas Grotesk for its advertisements, leading to a higher recognition of the typeface among the market and public. By 1959, Haas’ sales had increased by 20 percent.
Linotype, the insurmountable leader in the printing market, featured heavily on Hoffmann’s list of targets, however it took time to fine tune the typeface in accordance with Linotype’s rigorous standard. Haas and Linotype collaborated to refine Neue Haas Grotesk to be more suitable for the Linotype machine, and worked to come up with more effective methods of appealing to the international market.
In the process, the name of Helvetica was born. Salesperson Heinz Eul suggested “Helvetia”, which is Latin for Switzerland, but Hoffmann was against using the name of a country for a product. So they settled on “Helvetica”, which means “the Swiss”.
When Neue Haas Grotesk was finally optimised to work with Linotype machines, it was introduced to the public under the name of Helvetica. Compared with other sans serif faces released in the same period, Helvetica was a phenomenal success. It’s charms were numerous: the forms and proportions had all been optimised for the printing environment; there was visual stability from the balance between letters and spacing; an emotional nuance reflecting Switzerland’s neutral and democratic image; and its simple name. Unlike the contemporary digital environment where a wide range of fonts can be purchased cheaply and quickly, in the 1960s a set of new typeface was worth the price of a luxury car. Still, the demand for Helvetica was staggering. For cost reasons, foundries sometimes bought only the most distinctive letters, such as the capital “R”, which was used mixed with other sans serif typefaces.
Having received widespread traction in the type market, Helvetica began to be used in a wide variety of fields. As the global economy expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, enterprises began to expand into international markets. As corporations evolved into multinational companies, they were eager to have a strong visual identity that would provide a more effective, fresh and consumer-friendly recognition of their brand in different markets. Against this background, Helvetica was adopted for corporate logos of a diverse mix of companies with international aspirations, and the typeface quickly became recognisable across the globe.
One example is the German airline Lufthansa. Founded in 1926, the airline implemented a makeover of its design between 1953 and 1960. Its logos were initially set in serif typefaces, but it gradually shifted to sans serif typefaces before eventually settling on Helvetica. Lufthansa’s fuselages, emblazoned with Helvetica branding, flew around the world, introducing the font even more markets and further connecting it with the modern ideals of progress, trust and contemporary innovation.
Helvetica soon developed a stronger presence in digital software platforms, including programs from Adobe and Apple. Expanding from its home in Switzerland, the typeface began to be ubiquitous in urban environments and civic design. Inoffensive and highly legible, Helvetica began to dominate government logos, airport and transport signage, and all manner of official documentation. The New York subway banners and line maps designed by Massimo Vignelli between 1968 and 1972 continued this trend of adopting Helvetica for large-scale public communications and wayfinding.
Today, Helvetica remains a contemporary classic and a design icon. Created to meet the social demand for practicality in the 1950s, it remains an enduring design that is simultaneously beautiful and simple, and profoundly democratic. It’s one of the reasons it has been the foundation of our own identity from our very beginnings, and why it remains a design icon, loved the world over, and a brand in its own right.
Magazine B, Issue 35
Helvetica Forever: Story of a Typeface
100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design