Familiar faces

When a little-known Swiss designer updated a minor font half a century ago, he had no idea Helvetica would become iconic. On the occasion of its golden jubilee, Simon Loxley looks at 50 influential typefaces

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the appearance of what, under a different name, would become one of the most successful typefaces of all time, Helvetica. In 1956 Edouard Hoffmann of the Swiss type foundry Haas asked one of his designers, Max Miedinger, to update the company’s sans serif, Haas Grotesk. But rather than merely tweaking the existing face, Miedinger’s design took on a character and subsequent popularity all its own. At first dubbed simply Neue Haas Grotesk, it was Haas’ German parent company Stempel who unilaterally retitled the face Helvetica in 1961, drawing on the Latin name for its homeland and the popularity of Swiss-style design – much to Hoffman’s irritation. The global success of Helvetica was to bring Miedinger little joy either, as he was paid a royalty-free company salary for his work.

Designing a font, unless it’s a corporate commission, may still not be an obvious get-rich-quick occupation, but the past decade has seen a welcome trend in recognising and rewarding designers. The digital era has ushered in a golden age of creativity, resulting in an almost bewildering breadth of choice. In terms of impact, therefore, there will probably never be another Helvetica, just as there will never be another Beatles; it’s not so much a question of quality as of perception. Writing in 1986, Walter Tracy, for many years Linotype’s typeface development manager, deplored the number of new typefaces appearing even then, many of which he felt could ‘only have been designed by the incompetent and produced by the cynical’, criticising ‘typographers whose appetite for anything new is stronger than their discrimination’. His pessimism was ill-placed/ cynicism is a quality that seems noticeably absent from type designers as a breed, and fonts with limited opportunity for use can be designed with as much integrity as a durable warhorse like Helvetica.

In an attempt to chart the typographic trends of the past 50 years, the list opposite is by no means a ‘best of’, but presents, among wild cards and those that have long dropped out of fashion, a few confirmed classics – and possibly some future ones, too. 1960s

The decade spelt freedom in typography, as in so much else. The arrival of photosetting towards the end of the 1950s enabled designers like Herb Lubalin to exploit the possibilities of minus line spacing and ultra-tight kerning that had not been available with metal type, setting a style with the short ascenders and descenders of International Typeface Corporation faces that would dominate until the 1980s. Compacta was the first custom face designed for Letraset, the rub-down system that meant everyone could be their own typesetter.

View Design Week’s 50 Year Typeface Timeline

For years afterwards, photosetting headline specimen books were peppered with uncredited designs drenched in the style of the first half of this decade, exemplified by Robert Trogman’s Blippo. By complete contrast, Jamie Reid’s ‘blackmail’ lettering for the Sex Pistols was a piece of would-be typographical anarchy which ironically served as superb product branding, pre-empting the marketing obsessions of the years to come.

The work of Neville Brody in ‘style bible’ The Face pushed type to the front of the visual agenda and made it sexy: suddenly it was cool to be a graphic designer or, even better, a type designer. Rudy Vanderlans and Zuzana Licko became ‘primitives’ of the emerging on-screen revolution in their magazine Émigré, making virtues of the limitations of early digital technology. The unmourned stop-gap technology – photosetting – was still king, but its days were numbered.

This decade saw an explosion in the number of faces produced; typesetting and design was out of the hands of the closed shop of the compositor’s studio and in those of anyone with a computer ‹ and the relevant software. Obsessions in popular culture were now reflected by a new wave of young designers; if music could be grunge, so could type. Matthew Carter’s Verdana was specifically designed with the emerging ‘information superhighway’, the Internet, in mind. The striking custom font for NatWest gave a warm, friendly face to an institution previously seen as formal and traditional – or presented a gothic, slightly sinister candy-coating, depending on your point of view.

Just when it looked as though the sans serif had a complete stylistic stranglehold on the decade, jumping from its powerbase on the Web to dominate seemingly every other medium, we saw the greatest comeback of all time from Blackletter, shaking off the albatross of being Hitler’s type style of choice to become fashionable. Comic sans, through on-screen availability and sheer informality of style, became the people’s font, its ubiquity even provoking a website dedicated to its obliteration. As type design increasingly reflects the world around us, other lines of creative thought have sought to echo the hole-in-the-wall interface styling of an increasingly depersonalised society. But with prolific designers like Rian Hughes at work, the future of type style remains safely unpredictable.

Simon Loxley is the author of Type: The Secret History of Letters, and editor of Ultrabold, the journal of St Bride Library. With thanks to An A-Z of Type Designers, by Neil Macmillan1957Max Miedinger

The New Alphabet (1967) is well proportioned and elegant, but also embodies a time when designers were prepared to push ideas as far as they would go, just for the hell of it. It was never a commercial proposition; I suspect that Wim Crouwel was surprised that some people took it so seriously. Nevertheless it was this willingness to explore the unconventional with care and imaginative flair that informed some of the best work of the time.
John Miles, Former partner, Banks & Miles

In the typographic sense, Avant Garde (1970) is a ‘brilliant’ design. Originally designed for the masthead of the eponymous magazine, it creates amazing ligatures. But it should be used sparingly.
Derek Birdsall, Creative director, Omnific Studios

I used Rotis (1988) once. It seemed right for a catalogue of cut-out steel ‘drawings’ by Tom Wesselmann, but as soon as the job was printed I realised the error of my ways; all those curves flouting themselves – it’s a one-night-stand of a typeface. Never again.
Phil Baines, Freelance graphic designer and Professor of Typography at Central St Martins College of Art and Design

Enigma (1999) is a typeface with swagger. It has a classical, chiselled design but its distinctive, knowing quirks make it contemporary. It looks like it has horns, and has a confident flair that for me is typically 1990s. Jeremy Tankard’s typefaces are always sophisticated. Designers like them because they’re so evocative and full of personality; connoisseurs like them because they’re beautifully detailed and complete.
Ned Campbell, Independent brand consultant

I’ve not used Paralucent (2000) yet, but if the right job comes along it looks happy and honest. You can see the child in it, especially in the shape of the lower case ‘y’ and the huge enthusiastic dots on the ‘i’ and ‘j’. Paralucent is full of friendly character and in spirit reminds me of Monotype Grotesque. It’s not self-consciously ‘modern’ like some newer typefaces can be.
Matt Savidge, Senior designer, Together Design

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