Beverly Hills Lingual Insitute
Beverly Hills Lingual Insitute
Beverly Hills Lingual Insitute
Beverly Hills Lingual Insitute

Blog   |   Language, Learning and Culture

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What Did Helvetica Tell You Today?

We are surrounded by type and typography. On signage, it directs us. In instructions, it helps us. Through advertising, it influences us. Through books and magazines, it informs us.

There's every chance that the typeface you see most is Helvetica. Norwegian designer Lars Müller, who wrote a book about the font, has dubbed Helvetica the "perfume of the city" - you don't notice it much, but you'd miss it if it disappeared.

You'll recognize that unmistakably international feel and distinctively Swiss neutrality, which seems almost to push and pull the different letters into conformity.

It's a "sans-serif" type, with none of the extending features at the end of strokes that are common in the print world. You might spot the unusually tight spacing between letters. "As with 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,'" writes Simon Garfield in Just My Type: A Book About Fonts. You may also have noticed that each letter's strokes terminate in horizontal or vertical lines.

The Helvetica font dates back to 1957, a time when it was thought that honest, functional communication could inspire people to make better choices. The era was characterized by a sense of social responsibility, in which designers were inspired by the idea that design could play a key role in postwar reconstruction. Design, so went the theory, could make things more open, and ensure that they ran more smoothly.

In the search for an international style, the Helvetica font emerged: a rational typeface, underpinned by this idealism.

Clean and direct, Helvetica owed much to the German Akzidenz Grotesk, which had been born in the last century out of Europe's modernist movement. From this, Switzerland's Haas type foundry created "Neuer Haas Groesk." It was hardly a particularly appealing name for a font that its maker hoped to pitch in America.

The marketing director of Stempel, which owned Haas, wanted to call it "Helvetia," which is the Latin name for Switzerland. One of the font's designers objected. It seemed inappropriate for a font to carry the name of a country. He but put forward Helvetica as an alternative.

Helvetica signage
Helvetica signage
Helvetica signage
Helvetica signage

Helvetica fairly took off, quickly becoming the font of choice for street signs. Aptly for a Swiss font, it seemed international in that only minor changes were necessary to make it adapt to a different culture.

Incidentally, Paris is a notable exception, proving somewhat more resistant to Helvetica's charms. "One can find it everywhere on the streets, but an attempt to introduce it underground was less successful," writes Simon Garfield in Just My Type: A Book About Fonts.

"The problem with Helvetica in a city notably immune to a uniformity of type was that it just wasn't French."

Helvetica's ubiquity continued into the computer age with its inclusion in the Apple Macintosh, launched in 1984. The Mac was the first computer with proportionately-spaced fonts. Roughly a quarter of a century later, Apple would even use Helvetica as a system font with the launch of the first iPhone.

There is still debate over whether the creators of Helvetica intended it to be used for logos. It certainly became a popular way of indicating that a corporation was modern - and of modernizing corporate look and feel.

American Airlines
Lufthansa

The most famous corporate use of the font was perhaps American Airlines, which adopted Helvetica in 1966. A novelty at the time was making the logo one word, rather than two, separated by a color. For forty-seven years, the airline did not change its identity.

Today, Helvetica remains the choice of more than forty corporations worldwide, including 3M, BMW, Lufthansa, Jeep, and Panasonic.

There's no doubt that the way something is presented will define the way you react to it. The choice of typeface is a prime weapon in that communication. As the practice of artfully representing words, typography can have personality, the way drawing does. Typefaces express a mood or atmosphere. They give words a certain color. Each typeface is unique, and each has a personality. Type sets the tone and hints at what you're about to read.

In corporate use, Helvetica can make companies seem clean and efficient, while the smoothness of the lettering can give them human characteristics of transparency, accessibility, and accountability. Tax forms are in Helvetica, and the EPA uses it as well.

Meanwhile, Apple has dropped Helvetica as its interface font. When the Apple Watch was announced in September 2014, the watch employed a new typeface, designed by Apple, called San Francisco. It was more legible at the tiny sizes which the tiny Apple Watch screen mandated. It was also a font for a digital age, one which changed typefaces dynamically according to the context. For example, a colon is placed right above the baseline, not vertically centered, unless it is placed between numbers. The iPhone, iPad, and Mac desktops and laptops abandoned Helvetica shortly thereafter.

Even Lufthansa, whose logo remains in Helvetica, uses Arial on its website. Arial, a clone of Helvetica dating back to 1982, is said to be more suited to electronic media.

Helvetica, some designers say, lacks rhythm and contrast. The corollary is that Helvetica has become the choice of designers for whom the meaning was in the text, rather than the typeface. This begs the question of whether the reader should be aware of the typeface - or is the typeface there simply to display and organize information? It also sets up the time-honored argument between clarity and legibility, on the one side, and expressiveness on the other.

That said, legibility and communication should not be confused. Something difficult to read may be sending a valid message, and may intentionally require more time for the sender to process it.

Marlboro, of course, does not use Helvetica - and it is often cited as an example of how a less ubiquitous, more "creative" font can add character.

Perhaps by way of its ubiquity, Helvetica is neutral. Its prevalence makes it the ultimate expression; a font with a feeling of finality, which makes everything that follows secondary in some way. A few years ago, that provided a brief boost to American Apparel, which used "more Helvetica per square meter than any other place on earth," according to Simon Garfield in Just My Type: A Book About Fonts.

The clothing manufacturer realized a simple truth: it didn'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."

Incidentally, it is said that when starting out to design Helvetica, Eduard Hoffman began with the word "hamburger," which apparently contains the complete range of character attributes in the alphabet.

Today, a designer might suggest that, when designing a font, you begin with the letter "h," followed by "o." These two letters will set the tone for the rest.

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