All Hail Helvetica!

Just a generation or so ago, the term “font” didn’t mean all that much to those who weren’t either in design, editing or printing business. Today basic computer literacy implies not only knowing what a font is but choosing a specific type of lettering as a reflection of yourself and your worldview. Still, rarely has a font succeeded in getting cult status, myriad followers, lovers as well as haters. Of course, it’s all about Helvetica.

Considering we’re surrounded by ads and various types of corporate communication pretty much 24/7, the role of the majority of fonts is to subconsciously convey a message, without (for the most part) being overtly aggressive. Thus Helvetica found itself in the right place at the right time so as to subtly get the corporate message across: for example, you know how the post office treats your packages – thanks to Helvetica it guarantees their safety, airline companies send out the message that their service is the safest, and the majority of public services will guide you in the right direction, including to the restrooms, via Helvetica.

This 54-year-old font was patented in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger in an attempt to offer a type of lettering free of abstruse edges, with clean, sleek lines and unobtrusive geometry – thus, a serious and perennial font. Just maybe a tad bit too cut-and-dried, unambitious and wishy-washy, according to its critics. Dozens of books have been published in regard to Helvetica, while an excellent documentary was filmed by Gary Hustwit four years ago. Judging by the film, it seems Helvetica still has a lot of good years ahead of it. A series of websites display that Helvetica can be presented in a different light, by presenting excellent, clean illustrations utilizing the font as its main frame of reference.

One of the more interesting projects is a string of Hollywood movie posters by Swedish designer Viktor Hertz, where he uses simplified yet recognizable pictograms of performances from cult movies.

Then there’s the exceptional “The Noun Project”, created with the idea of “sharing, celebrating and enhancing the world’s visual language.” The Noun Project provides organized, free and an ever-increasing database of highly recognizable symbols from the world’s most wide-spread visual language. Of course, in addition to the esthetic component and the interesting challenge of recognizing various meanings, the project is also interesting as it questions the possibility of a different cultural interpretation of any given sign, as well as the fact it depicts a database of social stereotypes.

On the other hand, various designers show us how to functionally utilize the font in our homes and gardens, creating large wooden Helvetica letters available at Etsy for the price of 125 US dollars or you can pay homage to the font using Beverly Hsu’s Helvetica® cookie cutters.