Developed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger with input from Eduard Hoffmann, this typeface, very quickly, became one of the most popular typefaces of the 20th century.
Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, it was changed to Helvetica which is "Swiss" in Latin. This capitalised on Switzerland's reputation as a centre of ultra-modern graphic design and helped to sell the typeface abroad.
Helvetica provided something that designers wanted: a neutral typeface apparently devoid of personality, that had great clarity, and could be used on a wide variety of signage. Indeed it's featured on signage from the New York subway to previous South Korean and Japanese road signs.
Helvetica has also been used for countless logos (please see the image above).
Versions exist for Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Khmer, and Vietnamese alphabets. Chinese faces have been developed to complement Helvetica.
Derivative designs based on Helvetica were rapidly developed, taking advantage of the lack of copyright protection in the phototypesetting font market of the 1960s onward. One could argue that such a trend has remained ongoing.
As you may know from our previous newsletter, Arial was created for IBM to substitute for Helvetica—without IBM having to pay Linotype for a Helvetica license on its printers.
IBM used Helvetica Neue as its corporate typeface until 2017. Like many big corporations, IBM now has its own bespoke typeface, saving over $1m annually on licensing fees.
If you have a Mac, it probably came with Helvetica installed and licensed. This shot Helvetica into the hands of everyone, not only designers, helping to maintain its popularity and relevance over the decades.
Here at MOTHandRUST, we don't tend to use Helvetica, as it is so overused—the American designer and design historian Paul Shaw puts it best: "Helvetica is an invasive and drug-resistant species that may never be eradicated. Even designers who don't often use it in their own work take pride in the fact that it is such a persistent cultural icon."