It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica. – Erik Spiekerman
Let me start with a quick bit of history. When a German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press in mid-15th century he also invented the first printable typeface now called Blackletter. It was dense on the printed page and so the name. With his invention of movable type, over the next three centuries, popular Serif fonts were created by English industrialist typographers William Caslon and John Baskerville to make books of the highest quality. These fonts used the contrast in strokes and the style of the serif to increase legibility and evolve new aesthetics in typography.
Sans Serif type forms first appeared around 1815-1817. With the advent of American civil war and the second industrial revolution, they grew popular as a sign of somber times. These fonts were classified as Sans Serifs or Grotesque as they lost the ‘decorative’ elements. They had simpler letterforms with relatively uniform stroke weight and no significant contrast.
In 1957, Swiss type designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann created a neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form and could be used on a wide variety of signage. Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, it was rapidly licensed by Linotype and renamed Helvetica in 1960.
Since then Helvetica is probably the most loved and most hated typeface among graphic designers. Helvetica is among the most widely used sans-serif typefaces. Now there are Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese faces that have been developed to complement Helvetica.
Helvetica is also a popular choice for commercial wordmarks, including those for 3M (including Scotch Tape), American Apparel, BASF, Behance, Blaupunkt, BMW, Diaspora, General Motors, JC Penney, Jeep, Kawasaki, Knoll, Kroger, Lufthansa, Motorola, Nestlé, Panasonic, Sears, Seiko, Epson, Skype, Target, Texaco, Tupperware, and Verizon. Apple used Helvetica as the system typeface of iOS until 2015.
A feature-length film directed by Gary Hustwit was released in 2007 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the typeface’s introduction in 1957. Watch the trailer.