Helvetica is—as every font geek who enjoys a repulsive turn of phrase must agree—one of the most iconic fonts of our time.
Which is a pretty strange thing. Designed in 1957 by two not very famous type designers as a neutral typeface for the Haas foundry in Switzerland, Helvetica might almost have been drawn to Jan Tschichold’s 1928 prescription for the “New Typography”:
Among all the types that are available, the sans-serif is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time… But all the attempts up to now to produce a type for our time are… too artistic, too artificial… to fulfil what we need today.
I believe that no single designer can produce the typeface we need, which must be free from all personal characteristics: it will be the work of a group… For the time being it seems to me that the “jobbing” sans-serifs… are the most suitable for use today.
Helvetica is a basic, functional, not particularly charming typeface. But it has become the Graphic Designer’s Font. It’s currently the best-selling font from fonts.com. There are wallpapers. There’s a film about it (at least, I assume it’s about it—I haven’t seen it, partly because the title is a bit offputting). There are T-shirts, and I’ve seen people wearing them. It is the system font for iPhone and iPad: the squatting toad that contributes to the nagging sense of gloom that accompanies both devices.
No, I don’t like it a great deal. It’s a font to respect, not to like. Its design is almost perfectly invisible, unless you’re the sort of person made gloomy by almost-invisible fonts. As its basic shape goes, it is pretty much unimprovable.
Corporate image, shoddiness, America
No, the reason I write about Helvetica is not because I dislike the font—at least not as much as Alastair Johnston appears to—but because I read something about corporate branding, namely this post by Dustin Curtis. He writes of American Airlines, who recently redesigned their logo from something using Helvetica to something not-using-Helvetica:
American Airlines’ previous visual identity … was a beautiful tribute to modern American design. The simplicity of Helvetica, set in red, white, and blue, and positioned next to an iconic eagle, defined the company with a subtle homage to the country it represents.
After forty-six years, one of the finest corporate brands in history has been reduced to patriotic lipstick.
I’m 40 years old and to me, in my youth, the American Airlines logo represented shoddiness. Crap font, cheesy colours, a bit ungainly, thrown together: the essence of America.
I have a bit more appreciation for it now, but let me explain.
I have only once ridden in a Cadillac, the classic American luxury car. This was fifteen-odd years ago, and it was a car of about this type:
It wasn’t very good. It wallowed and pitched along, and although it had every possible feature inside the cabin, details such as switches seemed to have been thrown together from the cheapest bits and bobs to hand. The dashboard looked like an imitation of that from a 1970s Volvo. Actually, it was a car that I can imagine its owners loving—comfy but awkward and homely. But it wasn’t very well done.
American products have been seen like that for a long time globally. In the UK, “Made in Germany” and “Made in Japan” have been badges of quality for decades, but “Made in America” was a badge only applied to products too embarrassing ever to reach these shores at all.
Helvetica was designed in Switzerland, but it’s now an American font. It’s used mostly by American companies, and has been since American Airlines first adopted it. It suggests the qualities of American products. And the very plainness of the font, the ungainly quality in some letters like the “e”, and the implication from its sheer ubiquitousness that it probably wasn’t chosen but simply picked from the bucket, reinforce those qualities.
In other words—a logotype in Helvetica, in two obvious colours, with the word American in it, is a badge of crap.
Hipness good, for once
The bright spot for Helvetica and its associated American corporate baggage is Apple.
To me, Helvetica brings down iOS: it’s a weak point. But to people who don’t give a crap about fonts, but love using their iPhones and iPads, Helvetica will be a subconscious reinforcer of quality.
Perhaps American Airlines—who had several rather cool logos before they got stuck with the venerated Helvetica one—might have been better making this decision a decade ago. Or else now staying put for a while, just to see.
Next week: “Made in England”, British Leyland, and the shocking legacy of Frutiger in books for children