Helvetica Font-Graphic Design
In the field of graphic design, Typography can be defined as the artistic technique of arranging type in order for visible interpretation of verbal language. This artistic process involves a sound criterion that ensures the chosen type has the preferable line length, typeface, point size and line spacing. The amount of spacing between groups of letters and the space between pairs of letters is also considered when choosing the appropriate typeface during type design. The art of typography is practiced in many fields, in the modern world. This includes typographers, graphic designers, art directors, typesetters, compositors, graffiti artists and in product marketing.
Typography traces its roots that date back to 1850 BC when the typographical principle of creating a complete text by reusing identical characters was first realized in the Phaisotic disk, a Minoan print item originating from Greece. However, it was not until the mid 15th century that the modern movable type and the mechanical printing press were invented. Typography has a very wide base that is composed of all aspects of designing letters and their application. One fundamental aspect of topography is type design. Type design is considered as the art of designing typefaces that involve different sizes of characters, different shapes the method used in designing the type and the level of consistency of the design (Arntson 76).
Helvetica also known as the Swiss style is an international topographic style developed in the 1957 by a Swiss typeface designer called Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman. It was based on the Akzidenz Grotesk typeface that was developed and produced by H. Berthold AG type foundry of Munchenstein, Switzerland in 1898 due to its possession of an articulate form and good clarity. It was originally called Neue Haas Grotesk before its name was changed in 1960 to Helvetica, to make it more appealing to the then present market. The International Typographic style or Swiss style refers to a movement in graphic design in the 1950s. The main emphasis of the movement was that the type should possess clarity. To ensure this, objective photography, which is the asymmetrical arrangement of elements on a molecular grid system, sans-serif typography such as the Akzidenz Grotesk and flash left-rugged right configuration of text, was being employed. Because of its cleanliness, factual approach and the presence of a highly structuralized module for organizing and presenting information, it became globally popular especially in the United States in the 1970s where it was being used for corporate designing.
The International typographic style movement ensured that the Helvetica typeface was distinguished from other typefaces by a variety of defining unique characters. The main aim of being unique was to create a favorable advantage in the competitive environment that existed during those times from typefaces. In addition, the unique characters presented other advantages like improved clarity in the text, aestheticism, and good form. Some of these unique characters include a tall x-height whose purpose was to make the reading of smaller sizes of the text easier by improving clarity. The letter ‘a’ was designed into a two-storied character with two curves one of which was the bowl and the other one the stem. This character was the most distinguished of all the characters in comparison to other typefaces. The t and f, on the other hand, were significantly narrow compared to other typefaces. Additionally, the s had a square like appearance instead of a curvy one. Finally, the digit 1 had a bracketed top serif and the squaretail of the letter R was rounded off (Baines and Andrew 99).
There has been the development of different variations of the Helvetica typeface through out the past years. For instance, the Helvetica Light designed by Stempel’s leading directors Erich Schultz-Anker and Arthur Ritzel. The Helvetica Thai is also another variant of the Helvetica typeface. It was designed by a Thai based type designer Anuthin Wongsunkakon of Cadson Denmark Company. Another variant of this typeface is the Helvetica Compressed designed by Mathew Carter. This variant is characterized by narrow and tighter characters. Other variants include the Helvetica Inserat designed in 1957, Helvetica Rounded designed in 1978, Neue Helvetica designed in 1983 and the Helvetica narrow, a version whose width is between Helvetica Compressed and Helvetica Condensed.
Helvetica film 2007
In 2007, an independent film director Gary Hustwit created a feature length documentary about typography and graphic design centered on the typeface Helvetica. The release in 2007 was intended to coincide with the year 1957 as a tribute to the typeface Helvetica that was then celebrating its 50years of existence since it was created by Swiss typeface designers, Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman. The director used the documentary to highlight the rich history of Helvetica typeface with captivating interviews from leading graphic and type designers like Massimo Vignelli, Rick Poynor, Wim Crouwel, Matthew Carter and Alfred Hoffman, Eduard Hoffman son among others. The documentary also addressed the famous heated debate between modernists and postmodernists in the field of topography and graphic design. In addition, there was a candid elaboration of the criticisms of the Helvetica typeface with a lot of backing explanations by critics. The film experienced high critical acclaim from many critics after its premier at the South by Southwest film festival in March 2007, which included a nomination for the Independent Spirit’s Truer than Fiction award in 2008.
In the documentary, one of the topics that were discussed was the history of the typeface and it featured through out the film. The documentary paints an era in which type design was a highly profitable business practiced by companies known as type foundries. The documentary explains how Helvetica typeface began back in 1957 in Switzerland. The typeface was invented by Swiss typeface designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman, who were then working for a type foundry company whose parent company was called Stempel. It had been initially named Neue Haas Grotesque. The documentary proceeds to state that the main reasons why the typeface was popular were that it offered clarity, simplicity and elegance, making it attractive. This argument is seconded by Mike Parker during an interview when he describes the design of the Haas Neue Grotesk typeface as the brilliant interrelationship of the negative shape, the figure-ground relationship and the shapes between characters.
The documentary also candidly addressed the origin of the name Helvetica. It explains that back in 1960 after the invention of the typeface Haas Neue Grotesk, typeface designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman wisely convinced their parent company Stempel to change the name of the company to Helvetica, a derivation of the Latin name for Switzerland. This was mainly because the current name had no appealing qualities that would draw a reasonable customer base. In the documentary, Bruno Steinert recounts that the marketing director at Stempel had to change the name because Neue Haas Grotesk did not sound like a good name for a typeface that was to be sold in the United States. In addition, Alfred Hoffmann in an interview mentions that Stempel had initially suggested the name Helvetia, and he proceeds to explain that Helvetia is the Latin name of Switzerland. However, his father Eduard Hoffmann said that it was impossible to name a typeface after a country, and he proposed the name Helvetica that is presently used as the typeface’s name.
The documentary also does well in addressing the exponential growth of the Helvetica typeface and its adoption by major companies in the early 60s and 70s after the name change. It uses vivid examples in everyday life to try to show how the Helvetica typeface has encompassed the world in different ways like in design, advertising, psychology, and communication. It expresses how major companies like JC Penney and American Airlines began to use their logos, and how many governments started to use them because the type face evoked a sense of both professionalism and approachability. The list of logos that featured the Helvetica typeface in the documentary included Target, Toyota, Microsoft, 3M, Crate and Barrel, American airlines, Jeep, Staples, Lufthansa, Panasonic and BMW. With these prominent examples, the documentary in my perspective succeeded in painting Helvetica as a pervasive, versatile and dominant typeface (Pipes 84).
Another dominant theme in the documentary was the never-ending battle between the external opposing forces of order known as modernism and the external opposing forces of chaos known as post-modernism. The two concepts are complementary to each other. Post-modernism can be described as the movement whose primary focus is to come up with a group of external and absolute entities that can be considered separate from any particular culture, historical background or present society. Post-modernism has been present for the past 50 years and can be considered an internally based disciplinary movement. The main aspect of post-modernism involves welcoming influence from divergent sources, being willing to share ideas with those in philosophy, integrating different forms of media and striving to produce diversified products. Post-modernism is usually credited with the growth of design. This is because when graphic design and visual communication draws immediate influence from the new technologies entering their environment, a wide range of opportunities to are created for exploration (Malsy, Axel and Indra 55).
Post-modernism is the exact opposite of modernism. Modernism is based on the preservation of purity of form through the application of concepts like causality and absolute truth. The documentary does exceptionally well to capture the contrast between these two concepts and their relationship with the western culture. The modernistic design that first emerged in the 1950s was the first to be explored. This modernistic era involved a system that encouraged some for or order in type designing. The film then went on to explore the growth and development of the modernistic idea through out the 60s and early 70s and its instant embrace integration into the design realm. Finally, the film explored the sudden shift and introduction of the post-modern concept into the graphic design industry in the late 70s and 80s and its application as the preferred computer font in the 90s (Hollis 65).
The contrast of the two concepts present in the interviews was captivating. A good example is when David Carson, an avid postmodernist was expressing his views on the matter. He confessed of having no formal training as a type designer, and that he had never learned everything that he is not supposed to do while type designing. He had been experimenting with different ideas until many years later someone explained to him that there was this group of people that spent a lot of time trying to organize things, get some kind of system going, and that seeing him going in and throwing that out the window was disrespectful. Another classic interview was that of Tobias Frere-Jones, a post-modernist. During the interview he says, “I think even if they’re not consciously aware of the typeface they’re reading, they’ll certainly be affected by it, the same way that an actor that’s miscast in a role will affect someone’s experience of a movie or play that they’re watching (Cresswell 74)”. He continues to address the need for post-modernism while designing typefaces by disputing the classical modernistic line on how a reader should not be aware of the typeface while reading text.
The last theme that featured predominantly in the documentary was the criticism of the typeface. There was a wide range of views from designers interviewed regarding this theme. The views were polarized with some praising typeface, Helvetica and others expressing their disappointments in the typeface. During the interviews, Massimo Vignelli calls Helvetica intensive and passionate. He says, “you can say, “I love you,” in Helvetica and you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be fancy. Alternatively, you can say it with the Extra Bold if it is really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work (Berger and Imin 29)”. In addition, Lars Muller offers his praises to the typeface calling it the perfume of the city because it is widely preferred by many companies for public advertisements.
On the other hand, there were many negative criticisms. Some designers argued that, with the typeface’s gain of favor with many prominent businesses and governments, Helvetica had become associated with their corruption and moral inadequacy. During an interview with Paul Scher, he expressed his disappointments regarding the use of Helvetica by many corporations that backed the Vietnam War. The legibility and readability of the typeface also came of high criticism as most designers agreed that reading Helvetica in small font is a difficult task. For instance, David Carson recounted how he once changed the typeface of an article in a magazine from Helvetica to the Zapf Dingbats typeface because he though the contents of that article were poor. In conclusion, I would like to add that the documentary did a wonderful job in highlighting the historic significance of the typeface Helvetica and the field of typography at large.
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Baines, Phil, and Andrew Haslam. Type & Typography. London: Laurence King, 2005. Print.
Berger, Joshua, and Imin Pao. 30 Essential Typefaces for a Lifetime. Gloucester, Mass: Rockport, 2006. Print.
Cresswell, Lesley. Product Design Graphics with Materials Technology. Oxford: Heinemann, 2002. Print.
Haralambous, Yannis, and P S. Horne. Fonts & Encodings. Sebastopol, Calif: O’Reilly Media, 2007. Print.
Hollis, Richard. Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style, 1920-1965. London: Laurence King Publ, 2006. Print.
Malsy, Victor, Axel Langer, and Indra Kupferschmid. Helvetica Forever: Geschichte Einer Schrift. Baden/Switzerland: Mu?ller, 2008. Print.
Pipes, Alan. Production for Graphic Designers. London: Laurence King, 2005. Print.
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