Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Life in Hel-vetica:
Is a typeface that’s as common as oxygen boring – or simply more of a design challenge?

Assuming you don’t have a disability that keeps you from reading a printed page at all, chances are that you have read millions and millions of words typeset in Helvetica, by far the most widely used typeface in Latin-alphabet languages like English. And while Helvetica is dismissed by many typographers and critics as overused and trite, the reality is more nuanced. Sure, it’s everywhere, but in its 40-year existence, a mini industry in Helvetica variants has cropped up that gives the face a staying power that pop singers would sell their leather jackets for – and those jackets might well be emblazoned with slogans set in Helvetica.

Like so many good ideas – store-brand soda pop, digital watches, VCRs – Helvetica is a second-generation creation, one whose direct precursor never caught on. A typeface called Akzidenz Grotesk was ahead of its time when it was released by the German typefoundry Berthold in 1896. The lack of serifs (finishing strokes at the ends of the main strokes of a character) was radical and shocking to readers of that era, hence the grotesque moniker. Critics – including ordinary readers who had an awareness of typography – balked at Akzidenz’s bare bones, unornamented look. Though that typeface found little favour early on, half a century later a Swiss designer, Edouard Hoffman, was inspired by Akzidenz’s simplicity and elegance. Working at Switzerland’s Haas typefoundry with Max Miedinger (who did most of the drudgery of actually drawing the characters), the two produced something of an homage to Akzidenz around 1957. The name they chose: Neue Haas Grotesk, or New Haas Grotesque. As Phil Meggs writes in his History of Graphic Design, “When this design was produced in Germany by D. Stempel AG in 1961, the Germans shocked Hoffman by renaming the face Helvetica, which is the traditional Latin name for Switzerland that appears on its postage stamps.” (Helvetia is the actual Latin word.) Switzerland, after all, was home to a prominent rational school of thought in graphic design, so Stempel’s rechristening made sense even if it did ruffle Hoffman’s feathers.

The rest, as they say, is history. Helvetica has ruled the typographic roost from the mid-’60s to present. For those of us under 50 years of age, a world without Helvetica is unimaginable. Once you learn to recognize it, you'll find it everywhere: In the Globe and Mail’s masthead (look at editors’ names and titles), in government letterhead, on generic food labels in supermarkets, on the sides of Toronto police cars, on Xerox-brand copiers, on TV, in FedEx waybills, in ads, on album sleeves, and (significantly) in office correspondence.

Indeed: Like crime, germs, and death, Helvetica has adapted itself to – and lived through – whatever technology we've thrown at it, including modern laser printers and desktop publishing. Most office laser printers contain a relatively faithful rendition of Helvetica inside their ROM chips (for example, virtually every printer that uses the PostScript page layout language comes with Helvetica built in). If you fire up a word processing program and just type away without selecting a typeface, you'll probably get Helvetica by default. Purists may gag, but most of the time even an ordinary office memo looks OK in Helvetica.

Today Helvetica boasts about as many variations as the spellings of immigrant names that emerged from Ellis Island. Don’t have much space? Use Helvetica Condensed, whose characters are designed to a narrower measure. (Avoid at all costs the monstrosity known a Helvetica Narrow, a typographic abortion in which normal width characters were simply scrunched to a narrower width.) Got lots of space? Use Helvetica Extended, whose letters spread waaay out. Do you find the round parts of letters like a, o, and b a bit too round? Pick Heldustry, where circles look like rounded rectangles. Want a Helvetica with serifs? There’s Helserif. Need a font that looks like broken glass? Try Shatter, a fly’s-eye variant of Helvetica. In all, some 94 Helvetica flavours are at your disposal – and if you speak Greek or Russian, you can find variants in those alphabets too.

Sensitive designers look to the extremes of the range for inspiration. Arena magazine, from the same British publisher that brought us The Face, has massaged Helvetica to the point that it’s an identity face unmistakably associated with the magazine. Using big letters, usually in lower case, set very close together in very light and very bold weights, the airiness and the geometric subtleties of Helvetica are winsomely revealed. The look is such an Arena trademark that even a Greek publication is ripping it off – using Greek Helvetica, of course.

Meanwhile, the Pet Shop Boys, the British pop group, have made cunning use of Helvetica’s gradations of boldness in typesetting the group’s name. With Pet, Shop, and Boys in three different Helveticas, there’s no need for space between words; the mind inserts them automatically. Maybe the enduring legacy of Helvetica is its habit of acting as a foil for indifferent, inept, detail-conscious, and learned designers all at once.

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