Helvetica, a 2007 documentary by Gary Hustwit about typography and visual culture, opens as an ode to Helvetica, the typeface, which was developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Edüard Hoffmann under the name “Neue Haas Grotesk” for the Haas Type Foundry, in Switzerland. Its freshness came as a breath of fresh air after the cluttered, muddled and old-school style in the 50s, and it was created as a neutral typeface with no intrinsic meaning.
Personally, I love Helvetica. It’s clean, it’s sans-serif and, with a very certain kerning, it’s hot. But it also has its problems, and while some of the designers interviewed seemed very enamoured, others had more of a love-hate (or a hate-hate) relationship with it, which was far more interesting. Clean lines and curves create a sense of uniformity and take the risk out of design, and while this isn’t necessarily devastating, it can get a little boring. Helvetica is also the universal typeface for faceless corporations, governments or subway systems trying to look friendly. It’s default presence on Apple computers since 1984 also means that it’s common and accessible to basically everyone, which is why Helvetica calls it the typeface of both socialism and capitalism. Designer Paula Scher also blames Helvetica for political abuse, the problems with globalization, and the wars in both Vietnam and Iraq — which seems a little unnecessary. Helvetica might seem like the typographer’s McDonald’s, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s lasted so long for very good reasons.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for clean lines. In the 1990s, there was a movement towards grunge typography, with handwritten type and slanted lines and, in one example, words scratched into someone’s skin for an album cover all have personalities which are more interesting—if not necessarily more durable — than Helvetica. And while “caffeinated” looks about as excited and dynamic as “cheeseburger” or “greyhound” when are all set in the same typeface, that doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing.
As Wim Crouwel, a graphic designer and typographer, says,
“The meaning is in the content of the text, and not in the typeface. And that’s why we loved Helvetica.”
As someone who spends more time writing words than thinking about the tiny pieces that make them up, to me, that’s a good thing.