Helvetica (Repost)

user_1969's picture

A humble question/rant from a design student: Can someone please remind me why we like Helvetica? Has anyone considered the shape of the uppercase “R”? The letterform indicates it doesn’t know whether it’s serif or sans-serif; it looks more like it belongs to something like Didot than to other characters in the Helvetica set. The lowercase “a” seems to have the same problem. Please see my examples below.

I would have to say Gotham or Trade Gothic are much more beautiful than Helvetica and are true sans-serif typefaces…even Futura has more consistent letterforms.

Cory Lasser
Parsons School Of Design
Degree Candidate

Stephen Coles's picture

I'm with you on the 'R', but the rest of Helvetica's letter shapes are very consistent — even to a fault, some say. Have you seen the film? Some good opinions for and against in there.

As an aside, there is a reprise of the 'R' foot in the bold lowercase 'a'.

user_1969's picture

Yes, I see the consistency between the uppercase "R" and the lowercase "a", but to me that is why they stick out from the rest of the set…would you believe I still haven't seen the film? Perhaps it's what I need to understand why people are such fans of Helvetica. It would probably be more interesting than staring at the awful vinyl decal letters in the subway!

Cheers,

Cory

user_1969's picture

And I also really want to shave off that descending tail on the uppercase "G"!

Stephen Coles's picture

Not a beard fan, eh? That is probably a relic of Akzidenz. But many other grotesques and gothics (including Trade) have it too.

paulstonier's picture

The argument of modernists is that Helvetica is the most neutral of all typefaces. Thus allowing the message to be communicated without carrying any exterior implications. Much related to Beatrice Ward's crystal goblet argument.

"Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a 'modernist' in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first thing he asked of his particular object was not 'How should it look?' but 'What must it do?' and to that extent all good typography is modernist."

Which is also why many post-modernists do not care for Helvetica.

Also, if you haven't noticed. It seems like Gotham is beginning to replace Helvetica in many instances.

Graham McArthur's picture

"A humble question/rant from a design student: Can someone please remind me why we like Helvetica?"

I dislike Helvetica and its derivatives, intensely.

Marcelo Soler's picture

I agree with your uncertainties about Helvetica, Cory, even though I like it but not as a fan.
I would add to your questions the number “1”, but it's me.
Thanks for remembering me some old unaswered dilemmas.

Marcelo Soler

paragraph's picture

It could just be a sign of the times, a historical thing: a reaction to typefaces past? In the fifties some people might have felt aversion to Futura and it's geometry, hence the 'serify' or 'humanist' R. Just a guess...

prgr

James Arboghast's picture

@Cory: . . . the consistency between the uppercase “R” and the lowercase “a”,

I don't think the curly bits on Helvetica's R and a are meant to be related, but evolved with separate, unrelated origins in seriffed roman types. They just happen to look very similar. Appearances can be deceptive.

@Graham: I dislike Helvetica and its derivatives, intensely.

Q. What's the difference between Helvetica and a bucket of shite?
A. The bucket has a handle.
A. Shite can be used to fertilize plants.

Q. Does my joke about Helvetica indicate I hate it too?
A. Nope. I just like making fun of things others despize.

@Paragraph: It could just be a sign of the times, a historical thing: a reaction to typefaces past? In the fifties some people might have felt aversion to Futura and it’s geometry, hence the ’serify’ or ’humanist’ R. Just a guess...

The curly leg on Helvetica's R is a piece of baggage residual from the face's origins in Akzidenz Grotesk and numerous 19th century "grotesks". From everything I've read about Helv the curly leg is not a backlash against geometric linear types but a form of tacit lineage to Didots, Baskerville, Bulmer and the like.

j a m e s

Quincunx's picture

While Helvetica is described as objective and neutral, it isn't really; it still has a lot of aspects that echo the broad-nib pen. E.g. contrast and stress (albeit little). I think the little flick on the leg of the R and the tail of the a also come from that.

dezcom's picture

The flick on the "a" could also come from trying to open up the tiny wedge of white to the left while keeping it from falling over.

ChrisL

James Arboghast's picture

@Jelmar: While Helvetica is described as objective and neutral, it isn’t really; it still has a lot of aspects that echo the broad-nib pen. E.g. contrast and stress (albeit little). I think the little flick on the leg of the R and the tail of the a also come from that.

This leads to another question. *Who* describes Helv as "objective and neutral" ? It may have been described that way by respectable aesthetes 50 or more years ago—by today's standards the design cannot be so described. Q.E.D: the definition of objective and neutral has moved on since Helvetica was unleashed.

These anomalies we're trying to explain could have their origins in the broad nib pen, or they could be imitation of traditional text typeface design. I favor the latter theory on the grounds that successful type designs are supposed to be closely based on existing types. Imitation of seriffed book romans is more likely than imitation of calligraphic forms.

j a m e s

typerror's picture

" it still has a lot of aspects that echo the broad-nib pen. "

HUH? Oh please take me on this tour!

Michael

typerror's picture

By the way, as my daughters would say, WTF ('n) calligraphic pen are you using in your mind?

Michael

James Arboghast's picture

For the purposes of abstraction in type design, the contrast & stress thru-out Helvetica—including G-beard, split branching of bowl strokes from stems curly leg and atrophied curly tails—may be seen as  f a i n t  echos of broad nib pen calligraphy.

For the purposes of typo debate, it can be helpful to give more emphasis to some words and less emphasis to others. f a i n t  e c h o s

j a m e s

Quincunx's picture

Yes, I meant echoes, that's why I said 'albeit little'.

Helvetica's construction -- especially apparent in the m, n, p, etc -- clearly shows artifacts of the broad-nib. Or in other words, translation contrast, to use Noordzij's term from The Stroke. With which I indeed mean the split branching of the bowl strokes from stems. It obviously isn't a humanistic/calligraphic sans, but the remnants are there.

typerror's picture

That would be f a i n t e c h o e s James. I think the lessened weight branch had less to do with the calligraphic pen and more about avoiding a blob or boredom! Same with most of the other """nuances."""

Serifs on Copperplate Gothic did not make it a serifed face in my mind... it became an ornamented sans!

edit: James, it does not show up but I have 5 spaces between the letters in faint echoes for emphasis.
Michael

James Arboghast's picture

To prevent the typophile web application's text rendering engine from collapsing two or more consecutive spaces, add non-breaking virtual character entity spaces as an ampersand followed by nbsp;

I put my faint echos in bold as a typographic pun on emphasis ;^)

A pleasant and stimulating discussion gentlemen. Looking forward to more of this in 2009.

Happy new year, best wishes and good vibes to you Michael (no fooling, no sarcasm, I say this in good faith). May 2009 bring you much happiness.

j a m e s

TypographyShop's picture

It's difficult to claim that any piece of art is entirely neutral. One's associations with Helvetica are going to depend on the context in which one first saw it. Just as you might have feelings about a particular song and what it meant when you first heard it, not 20 years later after it becomes an overplayed classic you can no longer stand.

While Helvetica may have been around since '57 it really took off later in the 60s. The best early widespread use of it involved the greatest practitioners of the day and the results were stunning. Helvetica may have been the face of choice that moment, but its usage was forever being showcased within the context of a bold new look in design in general. Had Helvetica not been there to use I'm sure they would have chosen any suitable sans.

If your experience with the face began with more recent Helvetica usage revivals you might have a different association. Usages such as that employed by American Apparel, for example, are purposeful attempts to be ironic by employing the face to represent the unbranded, un-designed and personality devoid culture they espouse.

Just as any color in a painting or note of a song is neutral until it is placed next to another, Helvetica's neutrality stops the moment it is placed into a layout, set in the words it will deliver.

Matthew Lujan's picture

Can someone please remind me why we like Helvetica?. . .I would have to say Gotham or Trade Gothic are much more beautiful than Helvetica…even Futura has more consistent letterforms.

I can dig what you're saying, as I myself have pondered on the few twists nestled within Helvetica, but I like Helvetica for this very reason - this questioning - because, when done right, there's no denying Helvetica just works for some mystical reason. Maybe we aren't to be reminded we like it. I personally feel the upper 'R' and lower 'a' know exactly what they are and where they belong.

blank's picture

Yes, the R in Helvetica sucks. But the rest of it makes a pretty sweet display face. I think Mike Parker makes the best argument for Helvetica when he describes how the shapes of the letters and tight spacing combined to just grab the negative spaces and lock them in place. As for neutrality, Kai Bernau did a great job in his thesis explaining how neutrality is contextual; ubiquity of certain weights has made Helvetica anything but neutral in some contexts.

dezcom's picture

It is easy to damn Helvetica in the 21st Century. You had to have been there in the early 60s to appreciate it.

ChrisL

speter's picture

But Chris, who here is *old* enough to remember that?

dezcom's picture

ME!

ChrisL

typerror's picture

But Chris... you are also old enough to remember the launch (being that you are 103) of Optima and you do not like it, right? Why like a sterile form and eschew a nuanced form : ?

Michael

dezcom's picture

I don't think in terms of sterile and nuanced as being good or bad. I loved Melior but hated Palatino. I love Univers and think Helvetica is good in display usage in the heavier weights. Actually, AG is better in the extra bold weight.

The significance of Helvetica is that it helped launch an avant garde movement later called the International Style. It was the sign of the young brash designer going against the establishment arty style of the 50s. That seems strange today where the old geezer establishment is looked upon as being the Helvetica flush-left crowd. Times come and go and what seems so hot, young, hip, sweet, and in today will be scorned in 30 years as establishment Lemming following.

Optima was decent enough but not earthshaking. It was something neither here nor there. Helvetica was the face that launched 1000 ships while Optima christened a few lovely yachts. There were two camps back in the 60s. The pro-helvetica were then the young firebrands and the anti-helvetica were the establishment. This is all flip-flopped now--even more, Helvetica hating is expected and cheered by the current young designers. Helvetica has become so overused and so very badly used in recent years that you cannot help but shun it. Today, we blame the sins of the sons on the conception of the fathers.
Optima filled a niche while Helvetica built the mountains, Today, the mountains have eroded badly and created many new niches to be filled. It is natures way, build, breakdown, and rebuild something new. We have all moved on and now can talk about Helvetica as a point in History--even make a film about it!

ChrisL

Graham McArthur's picture

Chris, I can follow and accept what your saying, and I am not going to disagree with your over all assessment of Helvetica & the 60's, but I quite like Optima & Palatino and dislike Helvetica & Melior, but I don't think these personal tastes are the core issue. Perhaps relevant in someway, but more a side issue.
You write: "It was the sign of the young brash designer going against the establishment arty style of the 50s." I agree, and this to me is the core issue that made Helvetica the monster it turned out to be, and it would suggest that it was usage and typographic/ graphic style that was really the issue and not the choice of type face. From my eyes there were better sans faces around long before Helvetica. Helvetica itself was nothing particularly new and certainly nothing creative or innovative at all in type face design as far as I can see (which may not be far). I think that Hans Mohring was far more interesting, different, innovative and creative in his sans designs during the 1920's (from memory) than Helvetica or anything produced in the 60's. The fact that Helvetica became the type face of the 60's and well into the 70's was more to do with it being a new release at the right time to suit the typographic style of the rebellious young graphic designers of the day.
Helvetica was used by the avant garde of the 60's because it was as far removed from the tastes of the day as they could get, not because it was a good design.

speter's picture

Helvetica was used by the avant garde

I thought they used Avant Garde...

dezcom's picture

What a capital idea :-)

ChrisL

nina's picture

The significance of Helvetica is that it helped launch an avant garde movement later called the International Style.

It's actually kind of sad that Helvetica jumped onto the train of the International Typographic Style just in time to make the world believe Swiss Graphic Design really was *that* bland, or that Helvetica was causatively connected to it.

Akzidenz Grotesk was the face that was almost invariably connected to the Swiss Style at its outset. A large majority of the earlier (Swiss) examples of the International Typographic, or Swiss, Style were set in AG, and Neue Haas Grotesk actually had a pretty slow start in Switzerland, most reactions indicating that graphic artists were very happy with AG, and weren't waiting for a "tamed" version of it. In fact, the power of many of those famous poster layouts relies in part on the greater tension and irregularity of the lettershapes – they would not have worked as well with Helvetica.* There is often a powerful but carefully balanced tension to those early layouts; many of them weren't anywhere near as bland as the Swiss Style has come to be seen (and reinterpreted) elsewhere, later.

* Probably my favorite: "Weniger Lärm" bei Josef Müller-Brockmann (1960).

So, the avant garde of said movement, more often than not, didn't use Helvetica (and consciously so); the ones who copied and followed the avant garde did (and do) invariably use it, belying some of the original essence and intentions of the Swiss Style.

dezcom's picture

"...the train of the International Typographic Style just in time to make the world believe Swiss Graphic Design really was *that* bland, or that Helvetica was causatively connected to it."

I agree. That is why I separate the earlier Swiss graphic Design from the International Style even though one grew from the other. Naming it Helvetica after Switzerland further pushed the Swiss notion. As I said before, I much prefer Univers as a typeface from that time but it lost the battle of distribution along with AG or Standard as it was known in American metal cuts. AG was really the founding father and a better display face than Helvetica. Ask Weingart what he thinks about Helvetica some day and you will have time to finish several beers before he finishes his comparison :-)
Helvetica won out not because it was better than Univers (or AG) but because it was quicker to phototype distribution and spread to typesetters with greater profusion. Typesetters usually did not have both Helvetica and Univers so they set what they had. Remember, purchasing a typeface in that day was a huge expense compared to the pennies they cost today.
I am not enamored of Helvetica, I am just explaining its prominence, indeed dominance, of usage in that era. That does not make it good. It just makes it a benchmark in typographic history.

My favorite Swiss posters were Giselle and William Tell by Armin Hofmann. This may partly be due to studying with early students of Hofmann and Ruder.

ChrisL

nina's picture

"That is why I separate the earlier Swiss graphic Design from the International Style even though one grew from the other."

Very good point; it's puzzling that many people / sources don't seem to make this distinction. Of course, like you said, naming Helvetica Helvetica makes it even more confusing to realize that it actually hasn't fully pushed the "Swiss" aspect of the style, even if it is a Swiss design itself. As Colin Forbes is quoted in "Helvetica – Homage to a Typeface":
"Some years ago a young intern in our New York office, when looking at an old map where Switzerland was named Helvetia, said, 'Fancy naming a country after a typeface.'"

I am not enamored of Helvetica, I am just explaining its prominence, indeed dominance, of usage in that era.

Oh, absolutely. I didn't mean to disagree; and I also didn't assume you didn't already know what I wrote. But hey, you never know, there may be people reading this who didn't. In fact I wrote a design history paper back in school, setting out full of confidence to document the relationship between Helvetica and the Swiss Style, only to realize this didn't actually happen the way I [and many people around me] expected it to be, which would have been a near-symbiotic rise of Helvetica and the Swiss style as a couple made in heaven.
Since then, mentions of the Helvetica—Swiss connection still prompt my reflex to disambiguate their relationship. ;-)

My favorite Swiss posters were Giselle and William Tell by Armin Hofmann. This may partly be due to studying with early students of Hofmann and Ruder.

I'm envious! (And as a Basler, I'm of course proud you mention Hofmann rather than Müller-Brockmann.*) Where, and with whom did you study if I may ask?

* I actually absolutely adore the work of Müller-Brockmann, except maybe the very late stuff. But Baslers of course relish any assertion that they're not any worse than the Zurichers. ;-)

My favorite poster by Hofmann is "Spitzen" (Lace; pardon the bad reproduction). The way he works the letterforms into the illustration is just amazing.

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