Say hello to Helvetica

Think of some of the largest, most widely known corporations in the world: AT&T, Microsoft, Target, American Airlines, Panasonic, 3M, Toyota, Post-It, Crate & Barrel, Staples, BASF, Sears, JCPenney.

Now think about what they have in common. Give up? Look at the logos. More specifically, look at the letters.

They all use fonts that are either constructed in, or based on, what is most arguably the most popular typeface in modern design. Helvetica is everywhere, and (unless you never leave your house), you have seen it thousands of times:

  • Mass transit signs for numerous cities throughout North America, including New York and Chicago.
  • The main typeface for the U.S. government, used everywhere from Internal Revenue Service forms to the U.S. Postal Service. It’s also the main typeface for the Canadian government.
  • Just about any printed logo from Apple, including iPod, iPad and iTunes.
  • The album sleeve of John Coltrane’s classic album “A Love Supreme,” and hundreds of other album and CD covers.
  • The television rating (TV-G, TV-Y, TV-Y7, etc.) that appears during TV shows.
  • Advertisements, storefronts, manuals, instructions, newspapers, magazines, and just about any other kind of printed material.
  • And last, but certainly not least, on the side of the Space Shuttle.

Entire books have been written about (and in) Helvetica, and the typeface inspired a feature-length documentary in 2007, which (not coincidentally) was Helvetica’s 50th birthday. That’s a pretty big impact for such a quiet, unassuming font.

By now, you must have some questions.

Where did Helvetica come from?

The typeface was created in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, two graphic designers in Switzerland whose goal was to develop a simple but versatile sans serif typeface. Its early version was originally called “Neue Haas Grotesk,” and over time, its design was tweaked to its present basic form.

Why is it called Helvetica?

The name was changed in 1960 to make it more marketable worldwide, especially given the original name of Grotesk. The original suggestion was for “Helvetia,” which is the original Latin name for Switzerland. However, Hoffmann opted instead for “Helvetica,” which means “Swiss.”

So why do some of the Helvetica-based corporate logos look the same, while others look completely different?

Helvetica spawned a number of variants from the same family, such as Light, Compressed, Textbook, Narrow, and Rounded. Within each of those, there are typically bold, italic, and bold-italic variations. So technically, they’re all Helvetica.

Why is Helvetica so widely used?

Mainly because it’s so simple, yet so flexible. It was created specifically to be neutral, with the idea that design shouldn’t be affected positively or negatively by a typeface. In the 1950s, that was a stark contrast to the decorative type typically used in advertisements and corporate materials.

There are various theories as to why it has remained popular for so long. Probably the most prevalent thought is that it has become such an entrenched part of American corporate culture that it’s tough to turn to anything else. In other words, it’s the easiest, least debatable answer to the design problem. It’s neutrality means safety, but it leaves plenty of room for designers to do their thing.

So everyone loves Helvetica, right?

Not at all. Helvetica is simple, serious and safe, and that’s precisely why some designers don’t like it. Rather than viewing it as being adaptable to a wide range of design projects, some designers see it as an example of social and creative conformity driven by blind corporate mentality. At the risk of oversimplifying the naysayers’ point of view, Helvetica is a bland, boring typeface that doesn’t encourage risk-taking, and if you never swing for the fences, you never hit any home runs.

Is it true that there is no major difference between Arial and Helvetica?

It depends on what your definition of “major” is. First, some background: conventional wisdom holds that Arial was developed at the behest of Microsoft as a Helvetica lookalike. The company wanted to use Helvetica as a standard typeface choice in its operating system and software, but didn’t want to pay royalties or give credit, so it initiated the development of another “flavor” of a simple, serious and safe typeface.

It’s difficult to tell the difference between Helvetica and Arial unless you know what you’re looking for. The biggest differences are in the lowercase letter a, the capital letters G, Q, R, and the numeral 1. There are numerous “Arial-haters” among graphic artists and designers, but both typefaces look essentially the same and have the same simple, readable characteristics for everyday use.

And that’s what’s really important when you’re trying to fill out your income tax forms.

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