Helvetica is a style that has become distinct despite itself. It’s a hugely popular font that has become common in design and signage of all kinds. Let’s take a look at the history of the now widely used font and just why it has evolved to become one of the most versatile and most prevalent of all typefaces.
What eventually became Helvetica was first designed in 1957. It was created in Switzerland by typeface designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman. Helvetica was highly-influenced by the early movement of Grotesque designs, a distinctly sans-serif family of typefaces that were designed to be bold, solid, and clear, making them best fit for headlines and advertisements, prioritizing clarity above all else. Indeed, Helvetica was first known as Neue Hass Grotesk (or New Haas Grotesk), designed at the Haas Type Foundry, controlled by the Stempel Type Foundry. Its origins and inspirations from styles like Schelter-Grotesk and Normal-Grotesk, another Haas Type Foundry creation, are clear. From there, it was licensed by Linotype under a new name. Stempel wanted the typeface to have a more international appeal and named it Helvetica, the Latin word for “Swiss”.
The rise in popularity
From there, the appeal of the font was immediate to graphic designers and companies that were looking to give their brands and signage a more modern look. Modernism was in full swing in post-war Europe. Architecture, literature, and art forms of all kinds took on more functional appearances and Helvetica proved just the right choice in the typeface world. Previously, brands relied on fancy, decorative typography that no longer fit the modern world, and Helvetica’s sleek, straightforward design was exactly what they needed to replace it.
Distinction from the indistinct
Helvetica might look like what you would consider a “generic” typeface at first glance, but it’s precisely that lack of distinct flourishes and a focus on clarity and minimalism that makes it stand out. At first glance, it’s very similar to Arial and likely influenced its design. However, it has a clearer appearance, lacking Arial’s use of sloping diagonal strokes and a slightly bolder aspect to its characters. Helvetica is modernism in typeface form. It’s clean, it’s sleek, it’s minimalist, and it’s simple.
Use of Helvetica
For a time in post-war Europe, Helvetica became the face of corporate prestige, and many companies to this day use it in their logos and brand designs. From American Apparel, Target, and Post-It to Toyota, Panasonic, and Lufthansa. It has become the face of international business, and offers a certain legitimacy in its appearance, suggesting that there are no gimmicks in its presentation, just clarity of purpose.
For that reason, it’s become widely used not only in logos but in signage and publications of all kinds where legibility and a certain straightforwardness is crucial. It has also seen a resurgence in the digital world, where simplicity and clarity is a treasured design principle that it fits in perfectly with.