The ubiquity of Helvetica

January 14, 2010

Let’s get this out of the way early. Please understand that I have had absolutely no formal training with typography, and have no idea if I’m using the correct terms. I truly have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m just trying to express my thoughts and diversify my writing subjects and repertoire.

Helvetica is without doubt the most well-known and widely-used font in recent history. Helvetica is the font used in many familiar corporate logos, such as Microsoft, GM, American Airlines, BMW, 3M… the list goes on.

Why this font though? What about it makes it so popular, especially with corporations? It’s by no means a new font… it was designed in the late 1950’s.

The design of Helvetica is one of those things that is intangible. It’s hard to use words to describe the font itself. I would describe it as modern, simple, and clean. But it also has a sort of high-end coffee shop, utilitarian, expensive girlfriend feel to it. Perhaps it’s the lack of serifs. Maybe it’s the way the lowercase h has a kind of unexpected narrowing at the beginning point of the ascender.

Whatever it is, it’s made a huge impact on the way things we see every day.

The original purpose of this font was to be easily readable at a distance, to have a wide range of uses, and to have no inherent meaning. That is, you could write “I love you” in Helvetica, and it would communicate the sentiment just as well as if the words “My dog is dead” would. The font was designed after the Second World War, a time where the world breathed a sigh of relief, and looked to rebuild and rejuvenate their minds and culture. The typefaces of the previous decade were gaudy and ostentatious, with flashy serifs flying about everywhere, and obnoxiously wide widths.

I think one of the things that makes Helvetica such a comfortable typeface is its use (I think) of the divine ratio, or divine proportion. The un-uniform rounding of the thickness around the O and, as I previously mentioned, the narrowing at the top of the ascender makes the font feel very human, in my mind. Actually, the Korean variant of Helvetica is quite beautiful. The following is my name in Korean, in Helvetica:

I absolutely love the unevenness of the lines in the ㅁ character. It makes it seem as though a human wrote the characters, with differing pressure along each stroke, the way we all write.

Let’s contrast this with Times New Roman, which I regard as just about as boring as it gets:

Now, to those who aren’t used to seeing Korean characters, this might look cool to you. The funky angles of the serifs, the way the lines don’t quite line up in the ㄹ glyph, the widely varying thickness of each stroke. Call me a minimalist, but I find the Helvetica shot to be much more appealing and easier to read. Edit: Looks like this may be a Mac OS system default typeface for Korean script when the typeface in question doesn’t support Korean.

This is getting a bit long. I’ll finish here. Just remember this typeface as you’re walking down the street. I see it used in everything, ranging from bathroom signs, to company logos, to street signs. Helvetica is truly a testament to minimalism and simplicity, which are two things I hold very dear.

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2 Responses to “The ubiquity of Helvetica”

  1. eric said

    there is a movie on helvetica mike, have you seen it? the font got us out of that ugly 50s style. what am i typing in right now? i think this is that font that makes term papers 20% longer

    • mikejrisi said

      I’m pretty sure that the font I see your comment in depends on my browser and OS settings. Anyway yeah I have seen the movie, and was really inspired by it, which was one of the things that led to the creation of this blog.

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