Helvetica is a neo-grotesque or realist design, one influenced by the famous 19th century typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk and other German and Swiss designs. Its use became a hallmark of the International Typographic Style that emerged from the work of Swiss designers in the 1950s and 60s, becoming one of the most popular typefaces of the 20th century. Over the years, a wide range of variants have been released in different weights, widths, and sizes, as well as matching designs for a range of non-Latin alphabets. Notable features of Helvetica as originally designed include a high x-height, the termination of strokes on horizontal or vertical lines and an unusually tight spacing between letters, which combine to give it a dense, solid appearance.
Developed by the Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei (Haas Type Foundry) of Münchenstein, Switzerland, its release was planned to match a trend: a resurgence of interest in turn-of-the-century “grotesque” sans-serifs among European graphic designers, that also saw the release of Univers by Adrian Frutiger the same year. Hoffmann was the president of the Haas Type Foundry, while Miedinger was a freelance graphic designer who had formerly worked as a Haas salesman and designer.
Miedinger and Hoffmann 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. Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk (New Haas Grotesque), it was rapidly licensed by Linotype and renamed Helvetica in 1960, which in Latin means “Swiss” (from Helvetia), capitalising on Switzerland’s reputation as a centre of ultra-modern graphic design. A feature-length film directed by Gary Hustwit was released in 2007 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the typeface’s introduction in 1957.
The main influence on Helvetica was Akzidenz-Grotesk from Berthold; Hoffman’s scrapbook of proofs of the design shows careful comparison of test proofs with snippets of Akzidenz-Grotesk. Its ‘R’ with a curved tail resembles Schelter-Grotesk, another turn-of-the-century sans-serif sold by Haas. Wolfgang Homola comments that in Helvetica “the weight of the stems of the capitals and the lower case is better balanced” than in its influences.
Attracting considerable attention on its release as Neue Haas Grotesk (Nouvelle Antique Haas in French-speaking countries),[a] Stempel and Linotype adopted Neue Haas Grotesk for release in hot metal composition, the standard typesetting method at the time for body text, and on the international market.
In 1960, its name was changed by Haas’ German parent company Stempel to Helvetica in order to make it more marketable internationally; it comes from the Latin name for the pre-Roman tribes of what became Switzerland. Intending to match the success of Univers, Arthur Ritzel of Stempel redesigned Neue Haas Grotesk into a larger family. The design was popular: Paul Shaw suggests that Helvetica “began to muscle out” Akzidenz-Grotesk in New York City from around summer 1965, when Amsterdam Continental, which imported European typefaces, stopped pushing Akzidenz-Grotesk in its marketing and began to focus on Helvetica instead. It was also made available for phototypesetting systems, as well as in other formats such as Letraset dry transfers and plastic letters, and many phototypesetting imitations and knock-offs were rapidly created by competing phototypesetting companies.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Linotype licensed Helvetica to Xerox, Adobe and Apple, guaranteeing its importance in digital printing by making it one of the core fonts of the PostScript page description language. This has led to a version being included on Macintosh computers and a metrically-compatible clone, Arial, on Windows computers. The rights to Helvetica are now held by Monotype Imaging, which acquired Linotype; the Neue Haas Grotesk digitisation (discussed below) was co-released with Font Bureau.
- Tall x-height, which makes it easier to read at distance.
- Tight spacing between letters.
- An oblique rather than italic style, a common feature of almost all grotesque and neo-grotesque typefaces.
- Wide capitals of uniform width, particularly obvious in the wide ‘E’ and ‘F’.
- Square-looking ‘s’.
- Bracketed top flag of ‘1’.
- Rounded off square tail of ‘R’.
- Concave curved stem of ‘7’.
- Two-storied ‘a’ (with curves of bowl and stem), a standard neo-grotesque feature, and single-storey ‘g’
Like many neo-grotesque designs, Helvetica has narrow apertures, which limits its legibility onscreen and at small print sizes. It also has no visible difference between upper-case ‘i’ and lower-case ‘L’, although the number 1 is quite identifiable with its flag at top left. Its tight, display-oriented spacing may also pose problems for legibility. Other fonts intended for legibility at small sizes such as Verdana, Meta, Trebuchet, or a monospace font such as Courier, which makes all letters quite wide, may be more appropriate than Helvetica.
Helvetica is among the most widely used sans-serif typefaces. Versions exist for Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Khmer, and Vietnamese alphabets. Chinese faces have been developed to complement Helvetica.
Helvetica is a common choice for commercial wordmarks, including those for 3M (including Scotch Tape), Adult Swim, American Apparel, BASF, Behance, Blaupunkt, BMW, Diaspora, ECM, Funimation, General Motors, J. C. Penney, Jeep, Kaiser Permanente, Kawasaki, Knoll, Kroger, Lufthansa, Motorola, Nestlé, Oath Inc., Panasonic, Parmalat, Philippine Airlines, Sears, Seiko Epson, Skype, Target, Texaco, Tupperware, Viceland, and Verizon. Apple used Helvetica as the system typeface of iOS until 2015.
Helvetica has been widely used by the U.S. government; for example, federal income tax forms are set in Helvetica, and NASA used the type on the Space Shuttle orbiter. Helvetica is also used in the United States television rating system. The Canadian government also uses Helvetica as its identifying typeface, with three variants being used in its corporate identity program, and encourages its use in all federal agencies and websites.
Helvetica is commonly used in transportation settings. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) adopted Helvetica for use in signage in 1989. From 1970 to 1989, the standard font was Standard Medium, an American release of Akzidenz-Grotesk, as defined by Unimark’s New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual. The MTA system is still rife with a proliferation of Helvetica-like fonts, including Arial, in addition to some old signs in Medium Standard, and a few anomalous signs in Helvetica Narrow. Helvetica is also used in the Washington Metro, the Chicago ‘L’, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and the Madrid Metro. Amtrak used the typeface on the “pointless arrow” logo, and it was adopted by Danish railway company DSB for a time period. In addition, the former state-owned operator of the British railway system developed its own Helvetica-based Rail Alphabet font, which was also adopted by the National Health Service and the British Airports Authority. The Helvetica 77 variation is used in street and house signage in Riga and other municipalities in Latvia, although common road signage in the country uses a version of DIN 1451
The typeface was displaced from some uses in the 1990s to the increased availability of other fonts on digital desktop publishing systems, and criticism from type designers including Erik Spiekermann and Martin Majoor, both of whom have criticised the design for its omnipresence and overuse. Majoor has described Helvetica as ‘rather cheap’ for its failure to move on from the model of Akzidenz-Grotesk.
Road signs in Japan and South Korea formerly used Helvetica.
IBM used Helvetica Neue as its corporate typeface until 2017, spending over $1m annually on licensing fees. It switched in 2017 to the custom IBM Plex family, concluding that a custom open-source typeface would be more distinctive and practical, as it could be freely distributed and installed without rights issues.
An early essay on Helvetica’s public image as a font used by business and government was written in 1976 by Leslie Savan, a writer on advertising at the Village Voice. It was later republished in her book The Sponsored Life.
In 2007, director Gary Hustwit released a documentary film, Helvetica (Plexifilm, DVD), to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the typeface. In the film, graphic designer Wim Crouwel said, “Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface… 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.” The documentary also presented other designers who associated Helvetica with authority and corporate dominance, and whose rebellion from Helvetica’s ubiquity created new styles.
From April 2007 to March 2008, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City displayed an exhibit called “50 Years of Helvetica”. In 2011 the Disseny Hub Barcelona displayed an exhibit called Helvetica. A New Typeface?. The exhibition included a timeline of Helvetica over the last fifty years, its antecedents and its subsequent influence, including in the local area.
In 2011, one of Google‘s April Fools’ Day jokes centered on the use of Helvetica. If a user attempted to search for the term “Helvetica” using the search engine, the results would be displayed in the font Comic Sans.
A large number of variants of Helvetica were rapidly released to expand on its popularity, including new weights and languages. Linotype confessed by the time of a 1976 advertorial that things had become somewhat confused: “the series was not planned as a whole from its conception…the series is not as uniform as Univers“.
Helvetica Light was designed by Stempel’s artistic director Erich Schultz-Anker, in conjunction with Arthur Ritzel.
Helvetica Inserat (German for advertisement) is a version designed primarily for use in the advertising industry: this is a narrow variant that is tighter than Helvetica Black Condensed. It gives the glyphs an even larger x-height and a more squared appearance, similar to Schmalfette Grotesk. Adobe’s release notes date it to 1966 and state that it originated with Stempel.
Helvetica Compressed (1966)
Designed by Matthew Carter and Hans-Jürg Hunziker for cold type. It shares some design elements with Helvetica Inserat, but uses a curved tail in Q, downward pointing branch in r, and tilde bottom £. Carter has said that in practice it was designed to be similar to Schmalfette Grotesk and to compete in this role with British designs Impact and Compacta, as this style was popular at the time. Carter, who also later designed Helvetica Greek had designed a modernised version of Akzidenz-Grotesk for signage at Heathrow in 1961, and commented later “if we’d known about [Helvetica] I’m sure we would have used it, since it’s a much better typeface than the one I drew. But the typesetting trade was very conservative then, and new type designs traveled slowly.” The family consists of Helvetica Compressed, Helvetica Extra Compressed and Helvetica Ultra Compressed fonts. It has been digitised, for instance in the Adobe Helvetica release.
Helvetica Rounded (1978)
Helvetica Rounded is a version containing rounded stroke terminators, released for bold weights. Linotype’s release notes date it to 1978.
Helvetica Narrow is a version where its width is between Helvetica Compressed and Helvetica Condensed. The font was developed when printer ROM space was very scarce, so it was created by mathematically squashing Helvetica to 82% of the original width, resulting in distorted letterforms, with vertical strokes narrowed but horizontals unchanged. Because of the distortion problems, Adobe dropped Helvetica Narrow in its release of Helvetica in OpenType format, recommending users choose Helvetica Condensed instead.
Helvetica Textbook is an alternate design of the typeface, which uses ‘schoolbook’ stylistic alternates to increase distinguishability: a seriffed capital ‘i’ and ‘j’ to increase distinguishability, a ‘q’ with a flick upwards and other differences. The ‘a’, ‘t’ and ‘u’ are replaced with designs similar to those in geometric sans-serifs such as those found in Futura and Akzidenz-Grotesk Schulbuch. FontShop‘s FF Schulbuch is similar.