One of the few places the Helvetica font has failed to infiltrate over the past half-century is the graveyard – Roman typefaces such as Perpetua or Bembo tend to work better on headstones. But perhaps now is the time to put it there. The recent death of Mike Parker, often labelled "the godfather of fonts", brings with it the delicate question of whether or not his most famous work should join him.
Today the Helvetica font is ubiquitous, used to spell out major brand identities (Nestlé, Lufthansa), shop names (American Apparel), public signage (the New York subway system was an early adopter), tech companies (Microsoft, Intel, Apple – current iPhones use the fashionably skinny Helvetica Neue) and self-defeatingly ironic T-shirt slogans ("I hate Helvetica").
As the name implies, Helvetica's roots were Swiss (originally it was called Neue Haas Grotesk, which sounds more like a 1980s German industrial band). It was developed in 1956 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman, very much in sympathy with the new Swiss Style – which treated graphic design almost as a postwar utopian mission. Just as modernist architecture stripped away superfluous building ornamentation, so the new Swiss typography snipped off the frivolous serifs – relics from an older era of print technology, namely stone carving. Now we were in the modern, industrial era where fast, clear communication was key.
Parker, a British-born American, was in the right place at the the right time to smooth its serif-free passage to global dominion. The place was the Mergenthaler Linotype Company of the US, where he became director in 1961. The company's Linotype machines were the industry standard in news and book printing, and they supplied the typefaces. Parker is estimated to have popularised over 1,000 of them but Helvetica was the one that took off. Parker describes it as "a landslide waiting to go down the mountain".
In 1960s America, the new discipline of corporate identity consultancy used Helvetica like a high-pressure hose, blasting away the preceding decades of cursive scripts, pictorial logos, excitable exclamation marks and general typographical chaos, and leaving in its place a world of cool, factual understatement. The font itself said as much as what was written in it – which, pretty soon, was everything.
But is its reign drawing to a close? Helvetica is now so ubiquitous, it barely says anything any more. Besides which, many of the qualities Helvetica was once associated with aren't quite as enthralling as they were: corporate dominance, machine-like indifference, bland conformity, American Apparel ads. Talk to a graphic designer today and they will often admit an intense dislike of Helvetica. Purists have sought to reinstate the original Neue Haas Grotesk, restoring almost imperceptible details lost in Helvetica's digital format. Others seeking an anti-Helvetica have settled on the childish Comic Sans. Professionals love Comic Sans like a vampire loves garlic, which could explain why it's become the default type for goofy internet memes. There's been a noticeable growth in Avenir-type fonts in new London stores – possibly influenced by the Keep Calm And Carry On poster. Even Wes Anderson has ditched his beloved Futura (a sans-serif font easily confused with Helvetica) in favour of busier, pre-modernist fonts like Archer Bold.
To veterans like Parker, though, who appreciated the nuances of type in ways few people can fathom, Helvetica was an all-time classic. "What it's all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape – the figure-ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters," Parker explained in Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary, Helvetica. Its letters live "in a powerful matrix of surrounding space," Parker continued, almost at a loss for words. "It's … Oh, it's brilliant when it's done well." They could put that on his gravestone.
• The picture at the top of this article was replaced on 5 March 2014 as the original image showed an old New York subway sign that used a previous font, not Helvetica. The article was further amended on 13 March 2014 to remove Toyota, American Airlines and Gap from the list of brands that currently use Helvetica.
The most widely used font used in signage, corporate identity and print work in the world is not Arial, as you would expect with the number of PC’s that dominate the computer market. Helvetica is a documentary exploring the most used or abused, depending on how you choose to see it, font face of our time. Some of you know the font and for those of you that think they don’t know it, we are sure you have seen it before and just didn’t know it was Helvetica.
Helvetica movie: cast poster
The Helvetica font is everywhere in our world and this documentary sets out to see why that is so, by interviewing a wide range of typesetters or font creators. Anyone in the print and digital space will appreciate this understanding, however granted the way the font Helvetica has affected our world, everyone else will appreciate this documentary as well. I liked how they talk to typesetters that understood the origin of the font and they gave us a full account of how it came to be. After understanding the times it was introduced and seeing what kind of fonts were prevalent at that time, you begin to grasp why it took off so well and is still widely adopted today.
The number of companies that used it, both large and small (as can be seen in the trailer below), still astounds me even right up to social services & municipal signage. The documentary then takes a moment to explain the philosophy and hidden message Helvetica conveys that makes it so attractive for so many designers to use and companies to sign off in their corporate identity. The documentary ends by looking at Helvetica’s future and the possibility of other fonts removing it from the top spot.
From the American Airlines, to magazines and billboard advertisements, the implementation of this font is second to none. The documentary does a great job of keeping you glued to what is being said with context relevant visuals. The way it switches between designers across the world, manages to keep your attention and interest in short slots, as it moves through what seems to be a consistent topic flow. This means font makers reappear over and over again, each time building onto an already established point either for or against it. While the film did show more of the logos and signage that use the font, in the film compared to the trailer, I did get so engrossed in that part so much that I wished there was more even if it had been a dedicated page on the documentary’s website just listing all companies.
Impressions: Helvetica movie
It’s an impressive movie or documentary, and I imagine that holds true on any time of any day. Anyone in design, digital or media will appreciate it a whole lot and I recommend this documentary to them the most. Anyone else that uses fonts in any capacity will also grow to enjoy it, if they are willing to go past the explanation of the font’s history which might be cumbersome. This can be attested to by the friends I chose to watch it with the second time, whom I had to encourage that it gets good after the explanations. Surely enough after that point in the documentary, they managed to keep their eyes off their mobile phones and on to the TV set as they passionately exclaimed after the jaw dropping realisation of how widely installed in our lives this font is.
This documentary definitely strikes a good balance on edutainment. If only there were more exhaustive examples to refer to, is the feeling it left me with.
Reviewed by: tyokie