Helvetica has spent 60 years as one of the world’s most used typefaces. It has variations for ten alphabets and is the star of its own documentary. But, as more and more major companies rebrand away from their Helvetica-based logos, we have to wonder if it’s finally kicked the bucket.
The typeface, originally called New Hass Grotesque, was designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffman in the International Typographic Style or Swiss Style. As part of the modernist movement, the style emphasized cleanliness, readability, and objectivity. Miedinger set out to create a neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form, and could be used on a wide variety of signage.
“Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface,” said Wim Crouwel, a Dutch graphic designer who was part of the industry when the sans serif sensation came on the scene. “We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.”
Haters gonna hate
Ten years ago, the fab font’s fiftieth birthday was celebrated with more glamour and hullaballoo than a celebrity wedding. But even then, many decried the type as boring and overused.
“When people choose Helvetica they want to fit in and look normal. They use Helvetica because they want to be a member of the efficiency club. They want to be a member of modernism. They want to be a member of no personality. It also says bland, unadventurous, unambitious,” said Neville Brody, graphic designer and typographer, in a BBC article.
According to Erik Spiekermann, “Most people who use Helvetica, use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner.”
The pendulum swings
So why is that 2007 couldn’t get enough of that Swiss grotesque type and 2017 calls it a yawn? Simply put, it’s no longer neutral. The simplicity of the design intentionally contrasted with the fancier, more decorative typography that was widely used on mid-century corporate collateral. Post-war Europeans wanted something different, and “Helvetica’s sleek lines and modern sensibilities were just what companies were looking for to remake their identities and set themselves apart from the past.”
Today, Helvetica waves to you from hundreds of logos, directs you on thousands of transportations signs, and judges you on your tax forms. It’s modern objectivity now evokes a cold corporate connotation. So, naturally, typographers are moving toward warmer sans serifs with more personality. While it’s sad to see the once rebellious type enter its cushy corporate retirement, we know a crop of headstrong, go-get-em fonts are just waiting for their chance to change the typographic world.