Helvetica, the ‘invisible’ typeface that became a mascot for disruption

Sarah hyndman on 60 years of this iconic typeface, understanding it in context of social history, and what her research tells us about its personality.

Typefaces/fonts reflect the defining spirit of a period in time. They are shaped by the ideas and aspirations of the era, and as a result they document cultural change. One of the most high profile examples of this is the now 60-year-old Helvetica; a typeface designed to be neutral and devoid of a personality. Instead it became the figurehead for the dramatic social shifts beginning in the post-war 1950s; a time of breaking with the traditions of the past as people looked to a new future.

Life in the 1950s was ruled by social conventions: marriage; men had a career to support their family; women stayed at home to look after the family; Sunday was still essentially Victorian in character; suits or corsets were everyday attire; in Britain received pronunciation, or ‘BBC English’, ruled the airwaves. The advent of the teenager was accompanied by the new rock ‘n’ roll music, which older generations thought would lead to juvenile delinquency.

In the US this was a time of economic growth after the end of World War II, along with the boom in the number of babies being born as people looked to the future with a new optimism for peace and prosperity. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum and demanding change. In Britain, despite food still being rationed, post-war austerity and high taxes, there was an excitement about the future and the 1951 Festival of Britain was a celebration of the nation’s innovations.

This desire for change, and to leave history behind, is reflected in all aspects of popular culture including graphic design. Traditionally pages were crammed with information, all available space would be filled and decorated. Now, in the 1950s, graphic design and typography embraced the new ‘less is more’ approach of Modernism; elements arranged on a grid with an extravagance of white space and no unnecessary ornamentation.

Popular typefaces mirrored this change as choices moved from traditional to the new and minimalist styles, of which Helvetica, launched in 1957, has become the most famous.

In the 1950s the typographic landscape had changed very little in 500 years, and the prevalent ‘serif’ styles, such as Centaur and Garamond, were considered to be steeped in associations from history. Their serifs even mirror the shapes of the columns seen in Roman architecture. The new ‘sans serif’ typefaces were simplified letterforms; all embellishments and details considered unnecessary (such as the serifs) were discarded to create a new and neutral language. This was a language that broke free from the conventions of the past and looked to a new future. Helvetica gained in popularity as a new era of technology was beginning, and it became the mascot for this time of social disruption.

Helvetica today

Helvetica was created to be neutral and to have no intrinsic meaning of its own, so it could convey a message without adding to or influencing it. Has this 60-year-old typeface achieved this level of transparency?

Graphic designer and author Sarah Hyndman has been researching the personalities of typefaces for the last four years. Here are some of the discoveries she has made about perceptions of Helvetica from the type consumer’s point of view.

Take part in the experiments here.

1. Is Helvetica is still seen as the serious and instructional typeface it was designed to be?

Helvetica was originally designed for practical scenarios like signage, in an online survey by Hyndman 71.6% of participants said they would take a danger sign set in Helvetica more seriously than in a selection of other typefaces.

348 responses, online Type Tasting survey

2. Helvetica has a personality

From the results of Hyndman’s online Font Census surveys, Helvetica has the following personality profile.

When asked what kind of shoes the typeface would be, a popular answer is “sensible work shoes”.

337 responses, online Type Tasting Font Census survey

When the full research results are cross-referenced against Myers Briggs characteristics (a popular personality typing tool) Helvetica falls into the ISTJ group. These personalities are described as being dependable, responsible and matter-of-fact types who value structure and order. Famous people who are thought to share this personality type are Queen Elizabeth II, George Washington, J.D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Evander Holyfield.

Find out what your personality font match is here.

3. Graphic designers are more reverential about Helvetica

When shown a sample of text set in Helvetica, designers are likely to recognise it and to use descriptive words like intellectual, intelligent, stylish. However non-designers often use descriptions like everyman, meh, dull, and to comment that it reminds them of tax forms.

4. What kind of job would Helvetica do?

In online surveys, answers given to this question include: Paperwork, give information, customer service, voice of reason, graphic designer, write serious headlines, advertising, civil servant, deliver news, used car salesman, social media, deliver up-to-date news, something in a cubical, make things easier for people to read, count beans, police, make signage, instructor, census-taker, broker, desk job, insurance, computer scientist, create instructions.

5. What kind of pub would Helvetica be?

Typefaces form a visual code that give us clues about a product or venue. We read these instinctively, having gathered subconscious associations each time we see a typeface from the context we see it used in.

 

When asked what kind of pub would have the above sign, descriptions include: cheap, minimal interior, basic and bland, community, moody bar staff, cheap decor, metal furniture, cash only.

By contrast the pub with the sign in Copperplate typeface, above, is described as a country pub, open fire, traditional, pub cat, expensive, warm, touristy, gentrified, next to a law court.

6. Will the real Helvetica please stand up?

Reputedly, rather than pay for the license to include Helvetica in the fonts bundled with system software, Microsoft commissioned its own version called Arial. Arial is designed to appear similar but there are a few tell-tale differences such as the top of the ‘t’ and the curl on the ‘a’.

In the 1970s Vic Carless deconstructed the typeface to create Shatter, which is described by designer Tim Spencer as literally slicing up Swiss modernist authority and attacking “the Establishment’s preferred information typography style”.

7. Helvetica is considered ‘cheap’

In 2010 high street fashion shop Gap scrapped its redesign after just a few days following customer protests that the new logo in Helvetica Bold (right) looked ‘cheapy, tacky, ordinary’.

In Hyndman’s experiments in which she asks people to place typefaces in order of perceived value, this is borne out; Helvetica Heavy (2) appears close to the cheapest end of the scale, whilst the considerably more refined Helvetica Light (5) is still a few fonts from the top of the scale.

368 participants in an online and live experiment, photos David Owens

8. A typeface is a visual code

Typography creates a visual code for food packaging; we learn this from the packaging and branding we encounter every day, and designers repeat these stereotypes to create a visual short-cut for shoppers.

For example, when asked what Helvetica Light coffee would taste like, the top rated answers are: decaffeinated, skinny, light, expensive and possibly instant.

We also associate typefaces such as Helvetica Light with healthy, low calorie food, but not with tasting delicious. In an experiment Helvetica Light was voted to be the healthiest, but the second least delicious out of six choices. It was also the option that people felt they ‘should’ eat rather than the one they wanted to eat. In Hyndman’s ongoing research she proposes that a new visual code should be created that entices people to eat more healthily, instead of informing them what they should or should not eat.

102 answers, gathered at two live events in April 2017 by Sarah Hyndman, Type Tasting.

9. Would you date Helvetica?

In the online Type Dating Game, Helvetica was voted to be both the fourth most dateable man and woman. It might not set hearts on fire but it’s not going to be left on the shelf. However it was also the top choice of both men and women to be just-good-friends with.

5,584 participants took part in the online Type Dating Game

Is Helvetica masculine or feminine? It turns out this depends on which variation of Helvetica: Ultra Light is rated as feminine, regular weights are considered neutral, whilst the bolder weights are rated as masculine.

Results of an online survey with 37 typeface options, taken by 186 participants.

10. What would Helvetica taste like?

Helvetica was designed to be an invisible carrier of words that adds no additional meaning of its own. Hyndman’s edible interpretation of Helvetica reflects this in the form of savoury water biscuits that are plain enough that they can be topped with any food without influencing its flavour. They have a sprinkling of salt and a dash of rosemary for a suggestion of fresh Swiss mountain air. Find the full recipe here.

The Eye Magazine team reviewed the edible Helvetica, describing it as “Bland and unobtrusive”, “Would have been nice with cheese”, “Practical and safe with no surprises”.
Read the full review here.

Today Helvetica is ubiquitous; from appearing on the New York Subway and US tax forms to being used by technology companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Apple, which perpetuates its associations with innovation and technology. Graphic designers love it, so the typeface has been the industry ‘default’ for many years. Much of its enduring appeal is not in its form, but with the history that it has absorbed, and its association with a quest for change, innovation and looking to the future.

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References

Helvetica or Neue Haas-Grotesk is a widely used sans-serif typeface developed in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger with input from Eduard Hoffmann.

Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman, Penguin/Random House 2016

How to Draw Type and Influence People: An Activity Book by Sarah Hyndman, Laurence King 2017

Image of 1950s crowd from Wikipedia.

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