OOne of the few places the Helvetica font has failed to infiltrate over the past half century is the cemetery – Roman typefaces such as Perpetua or Bembo tend to work best on gravestones. But maybe now is the time to put it there. The recent death of Mike Parker, often referred to as the âgodfather of typefacesâ, brings with him the delicate question of whether or not his most famous work should join him.
Today, Helvetica font is ubiquitous, used to spell out the identities of big brands (NestlÃ©, Lufthansa), store names (American Apparel), public signage (the New York subway was one of the first to adopt it), tech companies (Microsoft, Intel, Apple – today’s iPhones use the trendy Helvetica Neue) and ironic, self-destructive T-shirt slogans (“I hate Helvetica”).
As the name suggests, Helvetica’s roots were Swiss (originally it was called Neue Haas Grotesk, which is more like a German industrial group from the 1980s). It was developed in 1956 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman, very sympathetic to the New Swiss Style – which treated graphic design almost like a post-war utopian mission. Just as Modernist architecture eliminated unnecessary ornamentation from buildings, the new Swiss typography eliminated frivolous serifs – remnants of an older era of printing technology, namely stone carving. We were now in the modern industrial age where fast and clear communication was the key.
Parker, an American of British descent, was in the right place at the right time to facilitate his sans serif passage to world domination. The location was the Mergenthaler Linotype Company of the United States, of which he became director in 1961. The company’s Linotype machines were the industry standard in newspaper and book printing, and they provided the typefaces. . It is estimated that Parker popularized over 1,000 of them, but it was Helvetica that took off. Parker describes it as “a landslide waiting to come down from the mountain.”
In 1960s America, the new discipline of corporate identity consulting used Helvetica as a high-pressure hose, sweeping past decades of cursive scripts, pictorial logos, excitable exclamation marks, and general typographic chaos. , and leaving in its place a world of cool, factual understatement. The police themselves said as much as what was written there – which, very quickly, was all.
But is his reign coming to an end? Helvetica is now so ubiquitous that it hardly says anything. Also, many of the qualities Helvetica was once associated with aren’t as compelling as they used to be: corporate dominance, machine-like indifference, bland compliance, American Apparel ads. Talk to a graphic designer today and they will often admit an intense dislike of Helvetica. The purists sought to restore the original Neue Haas Grotesk, restoring almost imperceptible detail lost in Helvetica’s digital format. Others in search of an anti-Helvetica settled on the childish Comic Sans. Professionals love Comic Sans like a vampire loves garlic, which might explain why it has become the default type of goofy internet memes. There has been a noticeable growth in Avenir type fonts in new London stores – possibly influenced by the Keep Calm And Carry On poster. Even Wes Anderson ditched his beloved Futura (a sans serif font easily mistaken for Helvetica) in favor of more active pre-modernist fonts like Archer Bold.
For veterans like Parker, however, who appreciated the nuances of type in a way few can understand, Helvetica was an all-time classic. “What it’s all about is the interrelationship of the negative form – the figure-ground relationship, the shapes between and within characters,” Parker explained in Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica . His letters live “in a powerful matrix of surrounding space,” Parker continued, almost at a loss for words. “It’s … Oh, it’s great when it’s done right.” They could put that on his gravestone.