words Rick Poynor
Can we finally say goodbye? What is it that makes some typefaces so successful in the Darwinian struggle of constantly proliferating fonts? Let’s take Helvetica, a typeface currently celebrating its 50th birthday. Since it made its debut in 1957, the Swiss sans serif font designed for the Haas foundry by Max Miedinger – about whom little is known – has never fallen out of favour. More than this, the globally popular workhorse seems to possess the power to become fashionable all over again at intervals (though perhaps more high street fashion than couture). From Bayer to Panasonic, from KLM to Muji, from Intel to Oral-B, they are all wearing Helvetica. Even this very magazine sports a modified Helvetica masthead.
Many typefaces have such pronounced aesthetic flourishes that their uses are severely restricted. Helvetica is the modest, undemonstrative, dependable type. Its very restraint means that it can be used for almost anything. Those sturdy stems, bowls and cross bars that make up the letters express strength, purposefulness and authority. Helvetica is a reliable choice not only for outdoor and indoor sign systems where clarity is vital, but for multinational businesses that don’t want to put off potential customers by taking a chance on anything unseemly or eccentric. Observing Helvetica’s rapid takeover of German companies’ corporate identities in the 1960s and 70s, one wag quipped that the irresistible intruder should be renamed “Teutonica”. Helvetica isn’t precious, though, and it will withstand a certain amount of abuse. It’s become a kind of visual demotic that can be applied haphazardly to tacky mini-market name boards, temporary sale signs in high street shop windows and “no dogs allowed” notices. It’s about as generic as a typeface can be.
Some designers love Helvetica’s robust, functional and supposedly neutral qualities. In a book he created to eulogise the font, Swiss designer and publisher Lars Müller argues that its readability and accessibility associate it with socialism rather than capitalism. However, while the origins of Helvetica might lie in utopian dreams of an egalitarian future, any such reading of a typeface so omnipresent today in branding and retail is wishful thinking. In the commercial world, where it has become a spooky kind of default, Helvetica is the badge of a creeping new conformity. There are thousands of stylish typefaces to choose from. Why is it so often this one? Does Helvetica really look cool, or does it just look uptight? Some contrarians refuse to work with a font they regard as inexcusably obvious and dull. “Anyone who uses Helvetica knows nothing about typefaces,” scoffs venerable German typographer Wolfgang Weingart. Australian type designer Stephen Banham was so perturbed by the way Helvetica spreads in the streets like a neo-modernist fungus that he started a “Death to Helvetica” campaign with a line of T-shirts that quickly sold out.
And don’t imagine that a mere typeface couldn’t possibly be big enough to deserve all this fuss. Coming soon to a screen near you we have Helvetica, the movie. One can only hope that director Gary Hustwit’s documentary will include a few dissenting voices and that his accolade is a sign that this worn-out classic is at last on the verge of a well-earned retirement.