Face Facts

Helvetica and its predecessors have experienced waves of popularity this century. Ken Wilson charts the typeface’s history and the reasons for its recent resurgence

It is 1980. A third-year student is leafing through the New Western Type Book and has paused at a page of VIP Helvetica, 10 point, 2 point leaded. This page of type provokes a grimace. A prejudice which will survive for the next 11 years has just received further reinforcement.

He has seen endless examples of the International Typographic Style – to which his tutors refer with varying degrees of reverence as the Swiss Style. Some typefaces have ingenuity, but overall the impression is of something formulaic, hackneyed and worn out.

Helvetica and its first cousins are integral to this style. It is also the typeface of choice for Letraset bodgers the world over (Letraset is imitation type for the amateur, quite beneath the dignity of the professional typographer).

To the student, Helvetica is dull and desiccated. The student admires the rich contrasts and typographic wit of Lou Dorfsman, Herb Lubalin, Aaron Burns and the sparkly custom Bodonis and exaggerated Caslons. This is type with warmth and purpose – humanity. This is communication.

That student, who was me, evolved into a professional typographer. In 1991, visiting the Design Museum, I picked up a copy of Issue Eight, the house magazine, and the penny dropped.

Designed by Cartlidge Levene in weights of Helvetica throughout, the typography gives a huge nod to the Swiss Style, but subverts it in innumerable delightful ways: an idiosyncratic and prolific use of fine rules; crunchy collisions of elements; massive contrasts of scale; rolling acres of white space deployed with a decidedly individual sensitivity and a playful attitude to orthogonality. Overall there is a theatrical air of rigorous order with importunate anarchy stalking the margins.

Perhaps this was not the first use of Helvetica in a contemporary idiom, but it was the first to penetrate my typographic consciousness. It obliged me to abandon ignorant prejudice and reconsider the continental neo-grotesques – that host of typefaces including Helvetica, Folio, and Univers, to name the most well known, developed from 19th century European models.

These are difficult faces to use well: the utter absence of any distracting detail in the letterforms and their even grey tone in the mass means that any lack of typographic finesse on the part of the user – in spacing, in relative weight, in judgement of scale – is mercilessly revealed. In a minimal context, the minutiae become crucial. Their reticence – they project nothing beyond a certain coolness and functionality – heightens the viewer’s perception of the abstract qualities, the architecture of a page.

Interlinear spacing in text is a more critical judgement in Helvetica and its cousins than it is for almost any serif face. Not only does the channel of white perform the function of the serif in giving the eye a horizontal “rail” to hold it, but it also provides a modulation of tone (inherent in the very structure of an old style roman) which in its monoline monotony would otherwise be tiresome. In short, it needs a sure and sensitive touch. With Helvetica, a lumpen coarseness is always lurking a half-point away.

Since my abrupt re-education at the hands of Messrs Cartlidge and Levene, I’ve become increasingly aware that I am not alone in this late-found enthusiasm. A younger generation of designers has taken up Helvetica with alacrity; its Marcel Breuer-simplicity of line is very much to their taste. Farrow Design, Sea, CDT Design and North are all keen purveyors of Helvetica.

Perhaps it is simply that inexplicable cyclic process of fashion which has always operated in the typographic world, or perhaps a reaction to fin de siècle typographic excess. Whatever the reason, through the opaque alchemy of the zeitgeist we find that Helvetica has once again donned the holy mantle of credibility. It looks serious, inevitable and contemporary.

And yet it is worth remembering that apart from some minor polishing, this is a 19th century typeface.

Helvetica’s roots

The first appearance of sans serif printing type is generally considered to be a mysterious single line of tilting capitals called Egyptian in William Caslon IV’s 1816 specimen. It seemed to have come from nowhere and it did not set the world alight. It was not until the 1830s that sans serif really began to take hold (Vincent Figgins offering a single size in 1932, rapidly expanding this to ten sizes by the following year). The steady increase in popularity of the sans serif style up to the end of the century – when all founders carried a full range – was due to the inherent ability of the sans, unlike a roman, to take any amount of modification of weight and width while retaining a recognisable character. This made it ideal for advertising display work.

It was not until the 1860s that cuts suitable for text setting began to appear. The source of Helvetica begins in 1896 in Germany with the release of Berthold’s Akzidenz Grotesk normal. The light and medium followed in 1902 and 1909 respectively. These are the direct forebears of Helvetica.

The line of development deviates somewhat between the turn of the century and 1950. The seismic shock of the First World War created a hunger for change and a readiness to embrace new ideas. In art and design, the establishment of the Bauhaus in 1919 proved pivotal in Germany and elsewhere.

A new breed of coolly “geometric” sans appeared, including: Erbar (Ludwig & Mayer, 1922-30), Kabel (Klingspor, 1927-9) and, most famously from our present day perspective, Paul Renner’s Futura (Bauer, 1927-30). These typefaces were released in families of weights – in a way that is almost taken for granted today. This allowed an entire design to be composed in one typestyle, satisfying the Bauhaus typographic ideal of “contrast with simplicity”. They were enthusiastically taken up – an American cut of Futura, known as Spartan, became the dominant sans in the US – until the Fifties, at which time, a reaction began to set in.

The internationally influential Swiss school, which included Ernst Keller, Max Huber and Max Bill, had been developing a rational typographic style synthesised from influences of the Bauhaus teachings, Constructivism and the new typography of the Thirties. By the Fifties, they found themselves to be at odds with the mannered, overtly “designed” geometric sans, and had re-espoused the turn of the century grotesques which, they felt, had the modest and impersonal qualities which was congruent with their rigorously clinical style.

The type foundries responded, Bauer reissuing Venus (1906) and Berthold the 1896 Akzidenz Grotesk (renamed Standard in English and US markets). The Haas foundry, which already had Haas Normal – prefiguring Helvetica but with slightly squared curves – in the field, began work on a refined version of Berthold Akzidenz. Designed by Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman and originally issued by Haas as Neue Haas Grotesk in 1957, the type was renamed Helvetica when cut for Linotype by the German Linotype company. The Stempel foundry, which manufactured the face for export, also used that name. A raft of similar faces were issued by other European foundries: Bauer’s fine Folio family, and Mercator from Typefoundry Amsterdam were among the best.

At this time, Adrian Frutiger’s comprehensive Univers family (1957), distinguishable from Helvetica by its even more “impersonal” design philosophy, was released by the French foundry Deberny et Peignot. Univers, purged of 19th century idiosyncrasies, exhibited a unique consistency of design between the weights. In theory it was a better face than Helvetica, and certainly more flexible. But it was a very sterile design and never really convinced in large display sizes. It became, however, prodigiously popular as a text type. Monotype reissued 19th century revivals of Grotesque 215 and 216, which soon overtook sales of its humanist sans flagship Gill Sans.

Helvetica flourished through the Sixties and Seventies as the companion of choice for the International Typographic Style, which had been constantly refined by such luminaries as Emil Ruder, Joseph Müller-Brockman and Armin Hoffman.

Helvetica went through something of a trough in the late Seventies and early Eighties but never quite went away. The release of the consistent and comprehensive Neue Helvetica family in 1983 made it the ultimate utilitarian type and aided its renaissance, along with its slightly narrower and, some consider, superior forebear, Akzidenz Grotesk (recut and regularised in 1962).

The range of weight-width variants within these families means designers are able to exploit them in positively painterly ways. Their lack of any overtly expressive characteristics makes them highly adaptable to context; they can be induced, in sensitive hands, to take on the “colour” of their surroundings.

CDT’s work for English National Opera is a good example of this: a strong use of Akzidenz, the more so because in an unexpected context – one wouldn’t instinctively connect the business-like grotesque with the musical lushness of say, Tosca or Carmen. CDT’s Neil Walker says the choice of typeface was not connected to any one production. “ENO is a populist opera company – you can see an opera there for as little as £5 – and very contemporary in its approach. We wanted to put across the feel of the organisation as a whole. Akzidenz does that for us, it’s a beautiful typeface and incredibly flexible. We use Baskerville as a secondary display type to broaden the palette still further. Compare Baskerville and Akzidenz and you see that the skeleton is remarkably similar; they work well as a combination. Sometimes there are tensions between subject matter and typestyle, but these contrasts can be exploited for graphic impact. It’s an opportunity rather than a problem.”

Brian Edmondson at Sea waxes lyrical about Helvetica. The studio has gone to the trouble of writing its own kerning tables to match their idiosyncratic method – a typographic house style – with the face. Edmondson disagrees that one of Helvetica’s strengths is its blandness. “Not at all. I find it beautiful, and really very decorative. I tend to use it at larger sizes than the norm in text. That way you get to see the purity of line and form.” He habitually uses the 55 weight set close letter and line spaced, reminiscent of the late-Seventies manner, softening the somewhat hefty quality of 55 at larger text sizes by printing in greys or colours. The effect is of a soft, woven, almost rustic texture.

In the early Nineties there was ardent talk of the need for “a Helvetica for the Nineties”. Erik Spiekermann’s Meta was a candidate, as was Aicher’s Rotis. Curious twist then that the Helvetica for our time turns out to be an essentially 19th century grotesque called, er, Helvetica.

Ken Wilson is a typographer and lettering designer

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