The Simplicity of Helvetica

Helvetica is one of the most popular typefaces in the world.

Technically speaking, it’s a sans serif Grotesque typeface, inspired by and based on the Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface created by Berthold around 1898.

In practical terms, though, it’s used by designers at independent firms, big corporations, and everything in between, from all over the world.

Helvetica has been featured by MOMA in New York and has received a number of awards and worldwide recognition. There’s even a documentary and a few books about it.

But why is Helvetica so popular? What is it about this font that seemingly tries to be inconspicuous that has made it such a part of our culture and daily lives?

We see it dozens of times every day, from product logos, to websites, to packaging, and numerous other items. Read on for more information about Helvetica and why you might want to consider it in your next design project.

 

A Brief History

The original Helvetica was designed in Switzerland in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann at the Haas type foundry (Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei). Haas was controlled by the type foundry Stempel, which was in turn controlled by Linotype.

Helvetica was originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk, and was closely based on Schelter-Grotesk. It was created specifically to be neutral, to not give any impression or have any meaning in itself. This neutrality was paramount, and based on the idea that type itself should give no meaning.

The original Helvetica brochure.

The marketing director at Stempel decided to change the name to Helvetica in 1960 to make the font more marketable internationally. Originally it was proposed that the typeface be called Helvetia (Latin for Switzerland), but the designers didn’t want to name it after a country, and so it was called Helvetica instead (which is Latin for Swiss).

 

Helvetica Variations

There have been a number of Helvetica variations created, including a number of language variants (Cyrillic, Korean, Hindi, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Greek among them). Others variations include:

  • Helvetica Light was designed at Stempel by artistic director Erich Schultz-Anker and Arthur Ritzel.
  • Helvetica Compressed was designed by Matthew Carter that’s similar to Helvetica Inserat, but with a few differences.
  • Helvetica Textbook is an alternate design with a few different characters.
  • Helvetica Rounded was developed in 1978 and includes rounded stroke terminators. It’s only available in bold and black versions (including condensed and obliques), plus an outline version that wasn’t available digitally.
  • Neue Helvetica was developed in 1983 and has more structurally unified heights and widths among its characters. It also has improved legibility, increased spacing in numbers, and heavier punctuation marks.

 

Rise In Popularity

Helvetica was designed in post-war Europe, and many companies were looking for a change. It was the opposite of all the kitschy, fancy, decorative typography that covered corporate materials and advertisements.

Helvetica’s sleek lines and modern sensibilities were just what companies were looking for to remake their identities and set themselves apart from the past.

Corporations stick by Helvetica because of what they have invested in it. Because of this, it has become associated with corporate culture and business to some degree. This is one reason why American Apparel chose to use the font for their own brand identity to poke fun at corporate culture in America.

 

Compared to Arial

Arial is a very similar font to Helvetica, and was developed in 1982. To an untrained eye, the differences between the two fonts is almost undetectable. But there are key differences among certain characters, notably G, R, r, t, a, and 3. I Love Typography has a great comparison of how Arial and Helvetica differ.

Helvetica is somewhat more refined than Arial, even though each one has the same character width.

One of the key differences, though, is in the strokes for each character. Helvetica uses primarily vertical or horizontal strokes, while Arial often uses diagonal strokes.

If you’re interested to see if you can tell the difference between Arial and Helvetica, Ironic Sans has a quiz that compares 20 popular logos originally designed with Helvetica redone in Arial and compared.

It’s harder than you’d initially think, particularly if those characters mentioned above (with key differences between the two fonts) aren’t present in the logos.

 

Technical Details of Helvetica

Technically, Helvetica is a very interesting font. There are a few things that set it apart from many other sans serif fonts, and make it unique.

  • Helvetica’s characters always have vertical or horizontal terminations on their strokes, never diagonal.
  • Helvetica is as much about the negative space surrounding the letters than about the lines that make up the characters themselves.
  • The negative space contained within the lowercase “a” closely resembles a teardrop.
  • It has monotone stroke weights.
  • It remains legible when in motion, one reason it’s popular for signage and automaker and airline logos.

 

Designing with Helvetica

On of the best things about Helvetica is its neutrality. It was designed specifically not to give an impression or have any inherent meaning. And because of this, it’s very adaptable to use for different design projects. That’s one reason why it’s been used by everyone from Post-It to American Apparel. It’s also widely seen online, as it’s a web-safe font on Macs.

If you’re looking for a font that rides the line between classic and modern, conservative and edgy, or elegant and relaxed, Helvetica might just be your answer.

Depending on the design elements you include around it, Helvetica can be any or all of those things. Because it’s a sans serif font, it does tend to sway a bit more into the modern category, but it’s simple enough to fit in within a more traditional design.

Helvetica is particularly well-suited to signage and other designs where legibility is key. This is further reinforced by the wide variety of companies that have used the font in their logos or other corporate identity materials (American Apparel, American Airlines, Target, the NYC Subway, etc.).

Another of Helvetica’s main advantages is that it’s a very “safe” font. If you’re unsure of how particular typefaces influence design, Helvetica can be a good fall-back option that will have little impact by itself.

This can be useful to designers who are just getting started or for those studying design. But just remember, because Helvetica is “safe”, you’re unlikely to win any awards for being edgy or daring when you use it, at least not for the typography itself.

 

Helvetica in the Wild

As already mentioned, Helvetica is used in graphic design and web design all over the place. Below are a few examples of Helvetica in the real world. For more examples, check out our previous post, “40 Excellent Logos Created with Helvetica“.

One of a series of vintage-looking covers for social media sites (available as posters).


The NYC Subway system’s signs and map were changed to Helvetica in the 1970s by Massimo Vignelli.


U.S. Government forms all use Helvetica.


Helvetica looks neutral yet refined when cut from copper (just ignore the Comic Sans flyer below).


The “Love Happens” cover is in Helvetica; the other is (probably) in Arial.


Helvetica is neutral enough that it works even on signs that would normally use a more traditional font.


The commemorative Moleskine notebooks created for Helvetica.


Helvetica Light.


Another church sign in Helvetica.


Target has one of the more recognizable Helvetica logos.


Fox’s TV show “Fringe” uses Helvetica on their on-screen titles. It remains legible even at odd angles.


Another image from the NYC Subway.


NYC is not the only city to use Helvetica for transportation signs.


A tattoo in Helvetica.


A very early advertisement using Helvetica, dating to 1959.


Another vintage advertisement; the Motorola logo was in Helvetica, along with the headline.

 

Further Resources


Image credit: iPhone Helvetica Wallpaper (used in the article intro)

Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.

Do you use Helvetica in your designs? Why or why not?


0 shares
  • http://www.smashingshare.com Smashing Share

    very well explained. thanks

  • http://www.cookieofdoom.com David Mikucki

    Very nice article, nice to have some background information. I might even share some of this information with clients when they ask about my font choice.

    I took the quiz and only got one question wrong. I’m so happy.

  • http://www.theossi.com Felipe Theossi

    Great article, i like to use helvetica in my jobs…
    Thanks

  • http://blogpost.dj23.net/ jared thompson

    brilliant article as ever from webdesigner depot :)

  • http://www.squiders.com Website Design Maidstone

    wow helvetica tatoo certainly shows the love, great article as ever

  • http://www.massesoft.com/ Hamza

    Helvetica is the font i mostly used in my web designs i mean its feels great to have an impression on page Nice Post Thanks!

  • Jim

    Great article! I love helvetica too … :)

    and speaking of “simplicity” and helvetica I found this:
    http://whitetees.spreadshirt.net/circle-simplicity-helvetica-A10924334/customize/color/1

  • http://digitalartempire.com/ ben

    a great read as usual – You must see the helvetica film its really awesome

  • http://www.iconfinder.net Martin LeBlanc

    That tattoo is crazy, but great choice of font :-)

  • http://Beau.LIVESTRONGER.INFO Web Design New York

    A tattoo in Helvetica. Looks Awesome.

    Helvetica. am Loving it…

  • http://sexidesign.com Melody

    I thought people had a problem with helvetica…I don’t see why those it’s a clean simple font..that obviously fits a lot of projects..

  • Rich

    There’s a great documentary movie titled, as you might guess, “Helvetica”. You can watch it online through netflix.com.

  • http://www.designlovr.com DesignLovr

    Great article!
    Helvetica is a great font, but by now I personally think it’s to ordinary and wide-spread for logos and artworks – for web sites and copy still a great choice

  • http://webdesigns-rosenheim.de michael

    Incredible!
    I didn’t realize that helvetica was sooo spread allover the place!
    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.w3wall.com neer

    nice article for font :) i try to use in my web

  • http://www.elixirbox.com sinzo

    I love so much this font. I use helvetica in some project designs

  • Ronald

    A very complete article on Helvetica. There was not much new to me, but I have never seen a blog post about Helvetica so complete as this. All there is to know in one straight article.

    I use Helvetica a lot, but I think I’m going to use it less. It is a good font, but also a little boring and overused. Maybe still good for print and web. But in case of webdesign, not the whole world has Helvetica installed on their computers.

    Still, Helvetica will always be one of my favorites! And the movie is great for inspiration and knowledge.

    Thanks for this post!

  • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com Walter

    Thanks to all for all the great feedback. I love Helvetica and bought the movie and all the books :)

  • http://www.atozsolution.com website design nyc

    Really interesting to read this. It is very helpful

  • http://typographica.org Stephen Coles

    The Mutschler ad appears to be a pre-Helvetica grot (like Monotype Grotesque, not Helvetica.

  • http://www.liquidskydesign.org/ Claudia

    My fave font ever since, I just adore it (even ’cause I’m a Switzerlander =) and this post is quite amazing for all the well described infos and more.

    Thanks a lot =)

  • http://www.creativeindividual.co.uk Laura

    Wow nice read on Helvetica. Loved the examples too!

    Took the quiz and got 19 out of 20 – that damn Mattel logo got me! I’ll know it from now on though.

    Thanks for the tips on being able to spot Helvetica from Arial. I know it’ll be useful in the future!

  • http://www.psdfan.com Tom Ross

    Thanks for the post Walter. I love Helvetica too, and didn’t realize that it was used in so many every day situations.

  • http://www.jordanwalker.net/index.php Jordan Walker

    Helvetica is a timeless font.

  • http://simplifi.de Luke @ simplifi.de

    It’s so funny that I saw this on the Smashing Network this morning, because I just watched the documentary Helvetica last night… and now I love it even more! Helvetica Neue Light is my absolute favorite though – can’t beat it.

  • http://arniwebdesign.com/ Arni WebDesign

    I like Verdana font, but it is also very accurate

  • http://www.sametomorrow.com/blog adam

    Nice post definitely a nice font that is used almost everywhere.

  • http://www.thepeachdesign.com Peach

    Great post. Helvetica is my fav as well. You are correct, its neutrality had me the first time i see this font.

  • http://www.twarks.net/ Liane

    Whenever I’m not sure, my best call is always Helvetica! And I loved it even more with this post. Good job!

  • http://francisbaptiste.com Francis Baptiste

    Great article. Reminds me of Helvetica the Movie.

  • Alan

    You know how cool things become uncool from being painfully overused? yep

  • sayamish

    nice article….

  • http://softwareloo.info gofree

    I love this: ‘A tattoo in Helvetica.’

  • http://www.workbysimon.com Simon Carr

    Helvetica is the most commonly used font by designers for a reason…

    Going forward, I think more designers will seek out alternative fonts with the same readability and clean lines.

  • http://www.eduardouzae.com Eduardo Uzae

    Eu tenho a minha própria Helvetica http://www.flickr.com/photos/eduardouzae/3934470704/

  • http://www.itpixels.com mark

    Helvetica is my font of choice, Arial is second :)

  • http://www.egyptwebdesign.com web design wgypt

    this is my favorite font :)

  • http://bonfx.com Douglas Bonneville

    I love the St. Mary le Bow church sign carved in wood like that. It’s a mix of ancient and modern. The contrast is great…

    you might also like “Smilevetica”…

    http://bonfx.com/smilevetica-the-younger-happier-little-brother-of-helvetica/

    …to compliment this post. comes with a vector PDF too :)

  • http://bonfx.com Douglas Bonneville

    ACK…Helvetica is set WAY TOO CLOSE to COMIC SANS in the baptist church picture up there. Just noticed :)

  • mirkosp

    “The “Love Happens” cover is in Helvetica; the other is (probably) in Arial.”

    The other looks more like MS Sans Serif to me, but I could very well be wrong.

  • http://www.besttipstechnology.com technology

    A tattoo in Helvetica. Looks Awesome.

    Helvetica. am Loving it…

  • http://www.gratisbilder.de Gratisbilder

    Very interesting, I didn’t know this font had that much of a history back till 1957. Personally, I’m a big Verdana fan, but two of my sites are using Helvetica.

  • http://www.morganandme.net Morgan and me

    Definitely one of the most versatile fonts ever!