Helvetica: (Max Miedinger/Edward Hoffman 1957). With the possible exception of Times Roman, Helvetica is the most ubiquitous typeface in use. It has been used for all sorts of applications in just about any printing conditions imaginable. While some typographers see its dead hand as a sign of the desensitization of the discipline, that explanation does not account for its relationship with the broader cultural context.

The story of its ascendance goes back to the early 1950’s. After the Second World War, Edward Hoffman of the Haas Foundry noticed a fondness of Swiss designers for Akzidenz Grotesk. He made the perceptive assumption that, while the young designers reacted against the overt geometry of the Bauhaus, they remain committed to the graphic simplicity as articulated through sans serifs. He also noticed the tendency for tighter letter fit unachievable with geometric sans due to their round forms. Motivated by that insight Hoffman asked Max Miedinger to develop a modernized grotesque that would fulfill the new demands. Developed between 1951–53, what emerged was “Neue Haas Grotesk”. In 1957, when Haassche licensed it to the Stempel foundry, the name was changed to Helvetica the Latin name for Switzerland, taking advantage of that association with the then fashionable Swiss Typography to internationally market the face. While both Helvetica and Universe resulted from the reaction against geometric sans, the difference which motivated their inception accounts for their position in typography. Edward Hoffman wanted to develop a contemporary replacement for Akzidenz Grotesk, the resurgence of which had already displaced Futura.

On the other hand, Adrian Frutiger's attention was directed at his displeasure concerning the letter fit of geometric sans serifs. A comparison between Helvetica and Universe to Akzidenz Grotesk will illuminate this point. While both faces are larger than Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica has the edge in size. Its x-height is just about as large as it can be without being grotesquely so. While its stroke is actually lighter than Universe 55, because it is set tighter, text in Helvetica looks darker. As a result, Helvetica looks like Akzidenz Grotesk pumped-up, not only in its size and stroke weight, but also from its sense of pent up energy. Since Helvetica's x-height is large, in order to achieve a degree of moderation, the proportions of the lowercase letters are made slightly narrow, and adhering to the taste for a tighter letter fit, the letter spacing is set somewhat close. While its letter proportions are still normal, a quick comparison of text set in Helvetica vs. Akzidenz Grotesk will show a slight tendency of Helvetica towards verticality. The issue with its letter spacing, however, is more problematic. That spacing is tight enough to make its letters sit tense, thereby confounding word formation. As a result of its letter size, verticality, and letter fit, Helvetica does not show the sense of poise that Akzidenz Grotesk does in text setting. A reduction in size, with 5% additional leading, will not only lighten its tone, but will also give the text a more confident tram. Some positive tracking in the order of +25/1000 will loosen the letters to give the text a touch of relaxation, which will actually improve its word recognition. A quick comparison of its letters with those of Akzidenz Grotesk will also add insight to its comparison with Universe. Except for the hook of the capital “J”, the tail of the capital “Q”, and the swerve leg of the capital “R”, Helvetica can be considered a rip off of (AG). Except for its larger size, shorter ascenders, and heavier stroking, their lowercase letters are practically identical. Since Universe has a slight squaring to its letter, its difference to Akzidenz Grotesk is more pronounced. However, while Helvetica is obviously modeled after Akzidenz Grotesk, Max Meidinger did manage to “modernize” the new product.

While the increased size and stroke weight make Helvetica much more emphatic. And the slightly increased taper where the curve of the shoulder meets the stem acts to counterbalance its weight gain, Helvetica also has a better upper to lowercase stroke balance, making its texture more even. These factors give Helvetica its signature generic look. This, however, brings up an apparent paradox. The rejection of geometric sans by Swiss typography was due to their “mecanique” character. To the extent Swiss typography moved toward the forms of Akzidenz Grotesk, it was a move toward its suppleness. But insofar as Helvetica flushes out that suppleness to achieve its generic blandness, that evolution does seem to signal the dead hand of anonymity. Wrapped in this paradox lies the secret of Helvetica’s success. While Futura was an eloquent expression of modernity, that expression was underpinned by an underlying faith in geometry imbued with a purist ideology. To make its forms more consumable to the post-war market culture, that ideology underlying modernity had to be neutralized. By so doing, Swiss typography inoculated sans serifs for commercial consumption. By making itself more generic, Helvetica provided the freeway of anonymity for corporate consumption. And by connecting itself to Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica managed to reconnect itself to those typefaces so fundamental to the development of 19th century markets.

With modernity flush clean of its pre-war socialist ideology, the horizon was opened-up for the exploits of international business. While the usage of Neue Haas Grotesk began as a local response to Swiss typography, it found its true calling in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s in the ever-expanding demand of the cold war culture for anonymity. So while Helvetica established its foothold in Switzerland, its ascendance to the maintaining of its dominant position was the result of its ability to transcend stylistic particularities, by means of its generic character. Long after Swiss Typography receded into the pass, Helvetica is still going strong, and is likely to continue well into the future. It is these same qualities, which some see as the sign of typographic decline, which account for its success. This is a fundamental paradox within the discipline of typography itself. Helvetica fell into and ascended to its dominance by way of that paradox.