The Story of Helvetica

Since its release in 1957, Helvetica has fast become one of the world’s most popular fonts. It’s now almost omnipresent in print, on the internet, and even in news and movies. But what are the driving factors behind this popularity? Where did Helvetica start, and why is it so popular today?

We’ve taken a look at the history of Helvetica to give a better understanding of the typeface that is increasingly used as the number one choice in nearly all forms of media, and help you get your head around what made it the world’s favourite font.

The origins

Helvetica typeface dates back to 1957, created by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman under the name Die Neue Haas Grotesk at the Haas type foundry. The original design of the font was intended to reflect neutrality, an idea that type itself should give no meaning. In the sixties, a marketing director decided to change the name to Helvetica, which is actually Latin for Swiss, and it began to resemble the font we see today.

In the early days, Helvetica was used across a number of fields, employed in everything from hot metal to photo composition. It’s worth noting that the technical limitations of some of these methods led to variants in the weight, width, and spacing of characters, making early-day Helvetica a rather inconsistent font. As these industries and technologies continued to improve, however, limitations to the font decreased.

The sleek lines and modern sensibilities of Helvetica began to appeal to companies looking to avoid the fancy, decorative typography that adorned corporate advertisements, and gave progressive companies a tool on which to communicate their seeking of a chance in post-war Europe.

Evolution

The world of typography is not as static as one would imagine, and Helvetica is no different, undergoing numerous makeovers in its lifetime. Helvetica has evolved into what you see today, adapting the following traits as a rule:

  • Zero diagonal strokes. Terminations are either vertical or horizontal,
  • Monotone stroke weights,
  • Lowercase ‘a’ features a negative space closely resembling a teardrop, and
  • Has a tendency to remain legible while travelling in motion.

That said, the Helvetica font we see today is certainly an evolution of the original typeface, with the following changes:

  • Refined characters,
  • Improved punctuation,
  • Additional weights,
  • New numbering system, and
  • Cap height adjustments altered to be consistent throughout the font family.

The x-heights were also adjusted somewhat – in previous versions of the font the letter x was the same height as other letters, but had the visual illusion of looking shorter as it became heavier. New forms of Helvetica have compensated for this and catered for visual illusions.

Growing popularity

Perhaps no company has seen the benefits of Helvetica’s stylishly pared-back approach than clothing brand American Apparel. Many brands, companies, and organisations have adopted Helvetica as their font of choice due to its versatility. Everywhere from the New York Subway to the National Theatre in London – and even London’s transport system – were decidedly taken with Helvetica’s obvious charms.

The future of Helvetica

For the time being, it seems as though Helvetica has a very bright future, and a lot is to do with the neutrality of the font. A typeface without any inherent meaning can easily be adapted to different design projects, making it especially useful for those with websites and online stores. It’s a safe font choice, riding the perfect line between classic and modern, elegant and relaxed, conservative and edgy, so if you’re looking for something with mass appeal, Helvetica fits the bill quite nicely.

Helvetica is almost perfect for banners, signs and outdoor advertisements where legibility is the key, and so much of advertising needs to fit this bill of being clear and easy to read. It also makes great logos, which has led many companies to use the font for corporate identity materials. It provides a safe option, and an effective design solution for designers.

Conclusion

Well, it probably goes without saying that Helvetica is here to stay. The advantages of this typeface are numerous, and the fact that it is able to exist without creating an explicit feeling or notion only adds to its appeal. Without Helvetica there are a lot of graphic designers who would be making tough decisions right about now!

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