Lars anticipated the Helvetica boom of recent years when publishing Homage to a Typeface in 2002. Today it’s hard to imagine contemporary graphic design without the typeface. However, the story of Helvetica is not only a story of success but also the story of the democratization of design.
Lars Müller can claim to have anticipated the Helvetica boom of recent years. He already published his tribute to the typeface in 2002, to which, as a graphic designer, he has an intimate, but not always easy, relationship. Lars demonstrates through hundreds of examples how the talents of laypersons and dilettantes have contributed to the “perfume of the city” as he states. As counterpoint, he showcases the professional use of the typeface from its inception in 1957 until today and impressively documents the “Helvetica hype” of the past few years.
The designs gathered in the booklet Helvetica in honor of the typeface have been created by superb designers from all over the world. They could hardly be a more eloquent testimony to the fact that if you have something to say, you will say it even better with this typeface. Anywhere, anytime, in any medium. Helvetica’s robust design feeds equally into daring experiments and down-to-earth placards. Anything written in this typeface wants to be read. It lends its quality to the content of a message. Always neutral and functional, it can readily be grasped and has become the quintessence of modern aesthetics worldwide.
Subject to cyclical popularity, it is now enjoying a flourishing renaissance and, in time, it will fade into the background again. But we know it will always be there, as a measure of everything else. How excitingly old-fashioned, avant-garde and efficient does the conviction seem of those designers capable of solving any problem of design with a handful of typefaces. Helvetica is always among them. This attitude is, of course inseparable from the insight that idea and concept form the basis of intelligent and effective communication. Formalists are vain producers of samples for the software industry and victims of its breathless rat race. The effect on typography was obvious. The appeal of the new technology and supposed liberation from once indispensable basic skills ushered in the fall of the rules governing the classical design of lettering and typography. Since the late 1980s, therefore, the scene has been dominated by rampant growth and stylistic chaos – to every designer his own typeface.
In the 70s typesetters proudly offered “more than 100” typefaces; by 1986 Adobe had already launched a Type Library with 1000 typefaces, including the Neue Helvetica. The great leap in technological development and the introduction of the personal computer revolutionized the world of design: it “democratized” the accessibility of design tools.
Max Miedinger (1910–1980) trained as a typesetter in Zurich and worked as customer counsellor and typeface sales clerk for the Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei in Basel. In 1956 their director, Eduard Hoffmann, commissioned Miedinger to develop a new sans-serif typeface. From 1957 onwards the Neue Haas Grotesk was introduced in its various versions. In 1960 the typeface changed its name to Helvetica. Max Miedinger lived a quiet life in Zurich until his death in 1980. He was not recognized as the designer of his great invention. He is now honored posthumously as one of the most influential typeface designers of all times.
Looking back, one can see that utopian intentions spurred the development of Swiss graphic design in the 50s and 60s. The undoubtedly modern and useful tools of design were meant to objectivize the aesthetic debate; people would make a better choice by means of honest, functional communication. The commercial game rules of this attitude were called information graphics. Akzidenz Grotesk was the typeface of the movement and the sign of recognition among like-minded people.
The uniqueness of “Swiss Design” took shape in the design of posters and in corporate design for progressive companies. Success entailed reworking the tools of design, especially the range of typefaces, adapting them to the aesthetic Zeitgeist and to growing functional demands. Around 1957 new Grotesk typefaces came on the market in rapid succession – Folio, Neue Haas Grotesk, Univers –, their appearance more dispassionate and anonymous than that of their predecessor, Akzidenz Grotesk. Adrian Frutiger’s Univers was the most independent. Its intelligent system of variations in weight and width, mapped out from the start, later also became the standard for Neue Helvetica. The Swiss Style spread swiftly and many countries adapted it to their own needs. In 1960 Neue Haas Grotesk was renamed Helvetica (Latin for Swiss), a clever marketing ploy, for it ended up becoming synonymous with “Swiss Design.” The epitome of understated precision, its attributes appealed to businesses wanting to communicate an incisive and serious identity in their Corporate Design.
The prompt adaptation of non-Latin typefaces to the aesthetics of Helvetica and the wide range of language-specific lettering and accents turned Helvetica into the ultimate corporate typeface of the 60s and 70s. However, calling it the typeface of capitalism would miss the mark. If one must mention ideologies, one would have to associate Helvetica more with socialism: accessible to all.
** Müller-Brockmann and Lohse consistently used Akzidenz Grotesk. Embracing Helvetica was the least I could do to set myself off.
* The history of Grotesk typefaces and their designers as well as foundries in the 20th century has yet to be fully documented. The relationships between the foundries were close, questions of ownership often confusing. In 1957 the Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei was partially owned by D. Stempel in Frankfurt, which in turn belonged to Linotype. With the advent of digital media, copies of Helvetica proliferated, the most widespread is Arial by Monotype.
Lars describes his own relationship to Helvetica as follows:
Helvetica was especially widespread in the days when I started as a designer. All I can remember is the great big orange M of Migros, my family’s favorite supermarket. It looked indescribably modern. From my later mentors Richard Paul Lohse and Josef Müller-Brockmann, I learned the rules and principles of matter-of-fact, functional design dedicated to content and the quality of reduction and restriction. My preference for Helvetica was not a choice; it was a logical consequence.**
When it comes to typefaces I don’t need variety. I remember as a child thinking that all cars were Volkswagens, that everybody smoked Gauloise, and that Sunday and chicken with french fries were inseparable. There was one television channel and vacations were always in the same place. I didn’t object to that either.
My partiality is inspired by the philosophy embodied in Helvetica, its normality and understated self-assurance. Ordinarily, I like having things to choose from. It gives me a feeling of freedom; it is an expression of prosperity. That’s why wine lists are long, television channels many and supermarkets big. I have no objection to that.
I sing the praises of Helvetica, of its forgotten designer* and all those who have contributed to its unparalleled international march of triumph over the past fifty years. Among them I include amateurs whose work makes a far greater impact on our surroundings than the painstaking efforts of us professionals. My generation and those since have grown up with Helvetica. It is here to stay. It is so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible. Helvetica is the shift worker and the solo entertainer of typefaces. It is the conditio sine qua non of typography. As one among thousands of fonts, it is available but not intrusive. And yet it is one of the most popular in history.