Every month Freight aims to give you a preview of one of our designer’s favourite fonts. This month David Benjamin brings you…
In 1956 Swiss type designer Max Miedinger was commissioned by Eduard Hoffmann to design a new sans-serif typeface for the Haas Type Foundry.
Hoffmann wanted a typeface that would be able to compete commercially with Akzidenz-Grotesk (Berthold Type Foundry). From an earlier typeface, Schelter Grotesk, Miedinger developed a neutral and highly legible typeface ideal for application to signage.
At the time, German type foundry Stempel were part owners of the Haas Type Foundry and it was their marketing team who wanted to change the name to make it easier to pronounce for an international market. Originally coming up with the Latin for Switzerland, Helvetia, they eventually settled on Helvetica (Swiss), since Hass director Eduard Hoffman did not think a typeface should share the name of a country.
Following its release in 1957, Helvetica was immediately popular and became synonymous with contemporary Swiss design. It has become one of the most widely used typefaces of the last 50 years. The humanist form and straight strokes of the letters mean that the font works best when the characters have plenty of white space and adequate kerning (the space between characters). This is part of the reason why typeface has been adopted by so many businesses and has become symbolic of the corporate sector. It can look strong, clean and professional and many famous brands have adopted it in recent years.
A documentary film titled, ‘Helvetica’ by Gary Hustwit, was released in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the typeface. The film focuses on its cultural significance, including interviews with famous designers and typographers. It documents the typeface itself and how it has been used in design and, more interestingly, what it represents to people.
There are some very strong reactions to this letterform – a simple search of the internet for ‘I hate Helvetica’ will produce pages of material on people’s loathing for the typeface. There are technical criticisms of the shape of the letters from some and a more visceral disgust from others, who blame it for a creative blandness and corporate uniformity in design.
Regardless of the side of the fence you find yourself on, it has undeniably made a lasting impression. No other typeface seems to raise such interest and ferocious debate.
Two fonts walk into a bar, and the barman says, “Sorry lads, we don’t serve your type”
You will either find this joke funny or you’ll think it’s rubbish – the kind of thing you might hear a glasses wearing, checked shirt, graphic designer sniggering about from behind their Mac, perhaps. This joke is Helvetica, the marmite of typefaces. I like the joke and I like Helvetica. I first saw the Gary Hustwit film when I started University in 2007 and I loved it. The simplicity of Helvetica’s use and the clean design styles it inspired appeal to me, but it is the efficiency of the typeface itself and what it is used for that is really important.
Throughout my education and working life I have developed an inherent desire for good design where form follows function. Information and the transmission of that information are key. I like design that works and works well, and if it works well then I believe it will look good. I sit on one side of this typographic debate not because I think Helvetica is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, but rather because learning about its clean nature, its strong legibility, and the use of space to draw the eye, have helped me gain a clearer understanding of what typography is actually for. I have tried to apply these lessons to my design process. Good design is not always popular or fashionable but it functions effectively for its purpose and enriches its user, subject and environment.
The organic counter in the lowercase ‘a’ always identifies Helvetica; this shape is copied in other typefaces but after being changed – whether stretched, shortened or squashed – the result is always unbalanced.
The subtle fading corner on the leg of the capital ‘R’ breaks the horizontal and vertical strength of its upper case stature. The even line weight, parallel strokes and balanced spacing in the anatomy of this typeface makes it easy to read because your eye naturally identifies the recurring shapes.
You don’t have to use Helvetica to create a clean contemporary look or Swiss-styled design but it has been responsible for a lot of good examples of it.