How Helvetica Conquered The World With Its Cool, Comforting Logic

How did a clean, useful alphabet become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe? Simon Garfield recounts the story and examines its emotional pull.

This is the second excerpt from Just My Type. To read the first, "The 8 Worst Fonts in the World," go here.

What is it about the Swiss? Or, to be precise: what is it about the Swiss and their sans serif typefaces? Helvetica and Univers both emerged from Switzerland in the same year—1957—and went out to shape the modern world. They would sort out not just transport systems but whole cities, and no typefaces ever looked more sure of themselves or their purpose. The two fonts appeared at a time when Europe had thrown off all shackles of postwar austerity and had already made a strong contribution to midcentury modernism. You could sit in your Bertoia Diamond chair (Italy, 1952) and read about a forthcoming concept called Ikea (Sweden, 1958), while all around you buildings began to get squarer and more functional. Helvetica and Univers were perfectly suited to this period, and their use reflected another pervasive force of the age—the coming of mass travel and modern consumerism.

Helvetica is a font of such practicality—and, its adherents would suggest, such beauty—that it is both ubiquitous and something of a cult. The typeface even inspired a compelling and successful movie (Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica), whose premise is that on the streets of the world, the font is like oxygen. You have little choice but to breathe it in.

A few years ago, a New Yorker called Cyrus Highsmith put his life on the line by trying to spend a day without Helvetica. As a type designer himself, he knew it would be a challenge. Whenever he saw something spelled out in the typeface he would have to avert his eyes. He wouldn’t take any Helvetica-signed transport, nor buy any Helvetica-branded products. He might have to walk into New York City from its suburbs; possibly go hungry all day.

Even if you groan at American Apparel’s sexism, the company gave Helvetica a sex appeal that it’s never had before.

His troubles began as soon as he climbed out of bed. Most of his clothes had washing instructions in Helvetica, and he struggled to find something that didn’t; he settled, eventually, on an old T-shirt and army fatigues. For breakfast he had Japanese tea and some fruit, foregoing his usual yogurt (Helvetica label). He couldn’t read The New York Times as that had Helvetica in its tables. The subway was out of the question, though to his relief he found a Helvetica-free bus.

At lunch he thought he’d try Chinatown but had to switch restaurants as the first had a familiar-looking menu. At work he had, in advance, deleted Helvetica from his computer, but he couldn’t—obviously—browse the Internet. He was late back home because he couldn’t consult the timetable, and had to be highly selective about his cash, as Helvetica graces the new U.S. dollar bills. Inevitably, there was Helvetica on his credit cards, too. In the evening he thought he’d watch TV but the controls had Helvetica on them. So he read The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, set in Electra.

After he undertook his non-Helvetica day, Highsmith posed himself a philosophical question. "Do you need type to live?" The answer of course is no, not in the way one needs food and water. But do you need Helvetica to conduct contemporary urban activity? That’s harder to answer.

Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica movie would suggest you do. His film examines how the font took over the world, opening with shots of the font in Manhattan—on the Times Square tkts booth, Bloomingdale’s, Gap, Knoll, the subway, mailboxes. Then come images of BMW, Jeep, Toyota, Kawasaki, Panasonic, Urban Outfitters, Nestlé, Verizon, Lufthansa, Saab, Oral B, The North Face, Energizer, and on and on. The film also tracks the font’s genesis, talking to its key surviving creators, none of whom could really comprehend how such a clean little alphabet got so big.

The best section in the movie occurs a third of the way through. The designer Michael Bierut is explaining why Helvetica had such a deep impact on advertising and corporate branding in the 1960s, imagining how remarkable it must have been for an identity consultant to have taken a traditional company like Amalgamated Widget, which was previously represented on its letterheads by a goofy script typeface and a line-drawing of a factory belching smoke, and then sweeping it all away in favor of just one word in Helvetica: Widgco. "Can you imagine how bracing and thrilling that was?" Bierut asks. "That must have felt like you had crawled through a desert with your mouth caked with filthy dust, and then someone offers you a clear, refreshing distilled icy glass of water … it must have just been fantastic."

[Beirut: "Any questions? Of course not. Drink Coke. Period."]

Bierut then demonstrates his thoughts by flicking through two contrasting adverts for Coca-Cola, one before Helvetica, and one after. The first one features a smiling family and curly cursive lettering. The second one only shows a big glass of Coke and ice, with vapor bubbles on the glass. The slogan beneath it reads "It’s the real thing. Coke." Or as Bierut puts it, "It’s the real thing, period. Coke, period. In Helvetica, period. Any questions? Of course not. Drink Coke. Period."

Helvetica began life in 1957 as Neue Haas Grotesk, a comprehensive modernization of Akzidenz Grotesk from 1898. It was conceived by Eduard Hoffmann and executed by Max Miedinger for the Haas foundry in Münchenstein, near Basel, and renamed Helvetica (an amended form of Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland) in 1960. It was licensed to other larger foundries, Stempel of Frankfurt and then Mergenthaler Linotype, and from the mid-1960s it began to gain a reputation overseas, particularly among the design executives on Madison Avenue. The range of weights was restricted initially to light and medium, but when italic, bold, and others were added, the face we recognize today began to colonize the world.

It shows no sign of abating. In the spring of 2010, the big in-store push at the troubled clothing manufacturer American Apparel was for the Unisex Viscose Sexuali Tank, available in dark orchid for $24. This is basically a long vest, with all its sizing and washing details displayed—in Helvetica, of course. American Apparel, which uses more Helvetica per square meter than any other place on earth, had realized a simple truth: it doesn’t need guile or tricksy emotional psychology to sell its wares—not when it has a bold typeface from Europe that came in with our mother’s milk.

Lars Müller, a Norwegian designer who wrote a book about the font, has called Helvetica "the perfume of the city," while Massimo Vignelli, who first advocated its use on the New York Subway in the 1960s (more than 20 before it happened), believes its versatility enables the user to say I Love You in a variety of ways, "with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy … with the Extra Bold if it’s really intensive and passionate." And its appeal is global. In Brussels it is employed throughout the city’s transport system. In London the National Theatre has adopted it too, so comprehensively—on its posters, programs, advertising, and signs—that it rivals Johnston’s Underground as London’s strongest corporate presence.

Only Paris seemed (slightly) resistant to Helvetica’s charms. One can find it everywhere on the streets, but an attempt to introduce it underground was less successful. In the Métro it was tried out in the time between Alphabet Metro and Parisine, but in a mish-mash of styles, combining several old and new weights, and it wasn’t popular. The problem with Helvetica in a city notably immune to a uniformity of type was that it just wasn’t French.

To say Helvetica is "ubiquitous" is almost like saying cars are everywhere these days. The better observation is that it is ubiquitous because it fulfils so many demands for modern type. So what is it that sets Helvetica apart?

On an emotional plane it serves several functions. It has geographical baggage, its Swiss heritage laying a backdrop of impartiality, neutrality, and freshness (it helps at this point if you think of Switzerland as a place of Alps / cow bells/ spring flowers rather than Zurich and its erstwhile heroin problem). The font also manages to convey honesty and invite trust, while its quirks distinguish it from anything that portrays overbearing authority; even in corporate use it maintains a friendly homeliness. It wasn’t designed with these intentions—it was intended merely as a clean, useful alphabet, and something that would portray important information in the clearest fashion. It wasn’t meant for Crate&Barrel homewares store (where it appears with narrow spacing); it was meant for ICI’s Schools Liaison Section poster of the periodic table (where it appears in the perfect bold display of upper and lower case—Pd for palladium and Hg for mercury).

On the technical level it looks as if it was designed with some wit, and certainly with the human hand. Like other Swiss designs, it appears that the inner white shapes serve as a firm guide to the black around them, an aspect that one designer called "a locked-in rightness." The majority of its distinguishing features are in lower case: a has a slightly pregnant teardrop belly and a tail; b, d, g, m, n, p, q, r and u have much smaller tails, but they still demand attention in a sans serif face; c, e, and s each have straight horizontal endings; the i and j have square dots. On the upper deck, the G has both a horizontal and vertical bar at a right-angle, Q has a short straight angled cross-line like a cigarette in an ashtray, and R has a little kicker for its right leg. In the 1980s, Linotype rationalized all the disparate Helvetica faces (the old metal types, the short-lived phototypesetting fonts and the digital versions) into one large new family, which it called Helvetica Neue. This is predominantly the type we see everywhere today, although in some cases we may not recognize it as being related to the original font, such is the range of weights. There are fifty-one different styles to choose from at, including some that hardly look like the original at all: Helvetica Neue Ultra Light Italic, H N Condensed Ultra Light Oblique, HN Bold Outline.

In Bloomsbury, in the shadow of the British Museum, the office of Simon Learman is covered in Helvetica. Learman is joint executive creative director at McCann Erickson, and since he took up this post in 2006 he has been involved in campaigns for American Airlines, the only airline not to have changed its core typeface in more than 40 years. It is, of course, in Helvetica, usually in red (American) and blue (Airlines). For a while, PanAm used Helvetica too, but one now associates the font instantly with its one-time rival.

On one wall of Learman’s office there are a number of showcards with his recent hits. His work for Heinz Salad Cream uses a type that is also rooted in the 1950s, but slightly washed out, linking it with endless summers and postwar austerity. Next to it, Heinz Big Soup is sold with a bloated font, full of its own cud-chewing goodness. These are specialist types carefully sourced from the online directories. But next to them are bold Helvetica capitals offering "SOLITARY REFINEMENT" above a photograph of a wide leather seat, and "THE RED THE WHITE AND THE BLUE" above a photo of two bottles of wine and a window on a cloudless sky. These are newspaper adverts, and have an unusually large amount of text, chiselled in the shape of skyscrapers. "Ahhh … Blissful solitude," the first of these ads begins. "Imagine floating high above the earth cocooned in your own perfect little world … " The seduction—about ergonomically designed pods and a highly indulgent cabin crew, and lots of puns about "a long stretch"—goes on for quite a while, and beneath it, in bold italics, are the facts: how many flights a day, the many gateway cities, and the website address.

Univers, by Adrian Frutiger, is merely one of many typefaces that have aimed at overthrowing Helvetica, but it’s unlikely that one will succeed anytime soon.

Helvetica has familiarity on its side, but it is also still inherently useful in selling a tiring day of travel. "The thinking was," Simon Learman says, "that it has to compete against the British Airways brand, which is majestic "Britain at its best," and Virgin, which is "rock ’n’ roll and rock star lifestyle." So with this campaign we tried to evoke what travel used to be like. The luxury of the 1950s, early 60s, a little bit Mad Men. The American Airlines position was that they flew more New Yorkers than anyone else, so by dint of the fact that New Yorkers are difficult … if we can keep New Yorkers happy then we can keep you happy." Helvetica has come to represent getting things done efficiently. "It’s about getting to your meeting on time and getting the deal, but it’s also about using the type to be very businesslike in the way the ad talks to you."

Learman gets out some other cards from a cupboard, a campaign that didn’t run."This is one of those heartbreakers," he says. Here, the type itself is the message: On one advert the A extending itself until it turns into a long seat, on another two As forming themselves into the legs of a trestle table to emphasize the amount of working space on a business flight. "American really liked the idea, but they were nervous that it may invite people to start playing with their logo and damage their reputation."

From Just My Type by Simon Garfield. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2010 by Simon Garfield.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon for $17.

[Images: Fedor Selivanov, Christopher Parypa, and Omachonu Ogali via Shutterstock]

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