What do the brands MUJI, AGFA, SAAB, IBM, Oral B, BMW, Staples, Kawasaki and Panasonic have in common? Their logos are all designed in the Helvetica typeface, which is the subject of a new documentary that explores how typography and graphic design affect visual culture – and our lives. Chances are that you yourself will have used Helvetica to create a document, or that you have come across it when reading signs and billboards in cities around the world.
The Helvetica typeface is one of the most ubiquitous design classics of our time. And to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary this year, Gary Huswit has produced and directed a well-made film, with a sublime soundtrack, about its genesis. Full of examples of where, how and by whom Helvetica has been used, the film contains insightful interviews with many leading contemporary designers and typographers.
While Helvetica is variably at the top or at the bottom of designers’ favourite typeface lists, Huswit’s documentary shows that the history of Helvetica and the ways in which it has been embraced or rejected is bound up with more important things than the conflicting tastes of designers. The film couches this history in the bigger picture of the fate of the modernist project.
As with Helvetica, many people despise modernism, but are unable to find anything lasting to replace it with. Certainly within typography, nothing has matched the Helvetica project’s success and longevity. The development and exponential growth of Helvetica was very much a product of modernism. Developed by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, Helvetica had all the qualities necessary at the time to help rejuvenate attitudes to and uses of design. Though it was originally called Neue Hass Grotesk, in 1960 the font was renamed the more internationally-friendly, Helvetica - the Latin name for Switzerland.
Helvetica captured the modernist preference for using clarity and simplicity to suggest greater ideas. The fact that the typeface is clean-cut and simple means that it can be used as a neutral platform in a wide variety of settings – it is the particular context and content of the messages that convey their meaning.