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Find out why Helvetica is the “little black dress” of graphics





Photo: GearedBull Jim Hood via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Typography is primarily thought of by designers, but some fonts are so popular that they fall into the wider cultural zeitgeist. Helvetica is one of those fonts. Developed in 1957, it has become ubiquitous and can be found everywhere from labels on grocery store shelves to transportation to the logo of American clothing.

Helvetica was not the first name of this now iconic font. It was originally dubbed Haas’ New Grotesque Ass but was renamed in 1960 to facilitate the overseas market after becoming popular in Switzerland. The name is meant to be boring and neutral; and, indeed, Helvetica has been called “the little black dress” of the typefaces. Sure, it might not be the most exciting thing in a closet (or collection of types), but it’s versatile and can be worn to all types of events.

Would you like to know more about this policy? Scroll down to understand the characteristics of Helvetica, its historical development, and why it remains so popular today.

What does Helvetica look like?


Photo: Sara Barnes / My Modern Met

Before delving into the specifics of Helvetica, it is necessary to eliminate some basic terminology. A common flub that people make when talking about typography is that they use “font” and “typeface” as interchangeable terms. It’s not correct. A font refers to a type design and all of its variations. Helvetica is a typeface. Fonts, on the other hand, refer to these specific variations. Helvetica Bold 12pt is an example font. Another way to remember the distinction is that a typeface is like an album and a font is like a song on that album.

With these terms in mind, let’s discuss the characteristics of Helvetica. Helvetica is a Neo-grotesque style font. Neo-Grotesque is a category of san-serif (fonts without “feet” or “hats”) which began in the 1950s with the emergence of the International typographic style (also known as Swiss style) which was created with an emphasis on simplicity – something Helvetica embodies.

Characteristics of Helvetica

These are the basic features of Helvetica:

  • The font has high x height, which refers to the height of its lowercase x.
  • Capital letters are wide and uniform in width. You will notice that the shape of the letter does not shrink throughout the character – it is the same.
  • The S is a square shape.
  • Helvetica has narrow openings – the space between an open counter (including the letters c, f, h, etc.) and the outside of the letter – makes reading difficult in small sizes.
  • There is a tight spacing between the letters for a dense appearance.

Develop Helvetica

Helvetica specimen

One of the first specimens of Helvetica. (Photo:Filip.vyska [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Helvetica was not drawn from a vacuum; it was inspired by an 1896 typeface called Akzidenz-Grotesk. It was designed by Eduard Hoffmann and developed by Max Miedinger with Hoffmann’s contribution to the Haas Type foundry.

While the two were working on Helvetica, there was one word the police were on trial by: “Hamburgers”. Hoffmann knew that the word contained a full range of characters that would help them gauge the quality of the typeface. If “Hamburgers” were easy to read, Helvetica would achieve its goal.

Why is Helvetica everywhere?

Helvetica specimen

Photo: Stock Photos from Cory Seamer / Shutterstock

Helvetica has remained stylish and relevant over the years, and it won’t be falling out of favor anytime soon. But in vogue, it is also invisible. It’s not too distinctive, and that’s the point. Helvetica is easy to read without drawing attention to itself, which is why it has been used for so long in places like the New York subway.

Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-Hewitt, provides insight into its rise and longevity. “It provided something the designers wanted: a typeface that was apparently devoid of personality,” she explains. “In contrast, other popular sans-serif fonts that existed at the time, such as Gill Sans and Futura, have louder voices and more distinctive geometries. Helvetica has responded to our desire for corporate vanilla. “

If that sounds like a bashing of Helvetica, you can look at it from the point of view that design is not the same as art. Design solves a problem. And in scenarios where a font is needed to convey information quickly and effortlessly, while still offering variety (in font choices), then it must be celebrated as a success.

To appreciate Helvetica’s indelible mark on our culture, see the documentary Helvetica by Gary Hustwit. It was released in 2007 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the police and takes a look at many of the topics covered here.

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