Saturday, 21 March 2009

Helvetica: homage to a typeface

Helvetica: homage to a typeface
Lars Muller
Lars Muller Publishers

Love it or loathe it! Helvetica is one of the most successful typefaces of the twentieth century. From its birth in the 1950s through to today, Helvetica has rarely been out of favour. Each decade since, designers have found Helvetica to be the typographic expression of that particular time.

Of course Helvetica has its detractors, but for every one of them there are probably thousands of leaflets, posters, logotypes and signs that help people through their everyday lives. This is where Lars Muller comes in. Helvetica: Homage to a typeface is a handbook of Helvetica in-situ. With 256 pages, of which 7 are written introduction and 2 for acknowledgements this is very much in the recent tradition of ‘design’ books, but with one very important distinction.

Unlike the majority of ‘visual essays’ – which have been wildly over-intellectualised – or the more unapologetic ‘vanity publications’, from the self-proclaimed current avant-garde, Helvetica tells us much more about the visual landscape of the city and the designer’s impact on it. As Muller puts it, ‘cities are the melting pots of visual culture…it is structured and kept alive by a sea of codes and signs, signals and commands. Where there is friction between the ambitions of professional design and the pragmatism of daily problem-solving.’

Helvetica: Homage to a typeface will confirm, remind and surprise. With poster classics by the likes of Paul Rand – who once told a student in whispered tones that Helvetica was a display face and should not be used as body text ‘because it looked like dog-shit’. You will also find inspiring work by the likes of, Hans Hillmann, Wim Crouwel, Alan Fletcher, Josef Muller-Brockmann, Massimo Vignelli and Chermayeff & Geismar. Enduring corporate identities for, AT&T, Amtrak, Bayer, EMI, logotypes with a creative nod and a wink for AGFA, Knoll and Letraset and even an ethical slight of hand for so called ‘no brand goods’ store Muji. Helvetica is seen to stand for all things to all men – the napoleon Bonaparte of typefaces if you will.

Helvetica began its life as Neue Hass Grotesk and was drawn by the hand of Max Miedinger – in-house designer at the Hass Foundry – in 1951-53. A traditional grotesk, it was commissioned to fulfil a demand. The explosion of advertising graphics during this period along with the proliferation of the use of sand-serif typefaces (Akzidenz Grotesk, first cut by Wagner & Schmidt and Univers, by Zurich-based Adrian Frutiger being the most popular) and the increasing influence in Europe and the USA of the Swiss ‘Neue Graphik’ became the basis for the emergence and the domination of Helvetica – as it was to be named in 1957 – a warped version of the Latin for Switzerland.

Helvetica’s rise to dominance throughout the sixties was through name and association with some of the most influential designers in Europe and America. Towards the latter part of the twentieth century it would receive a further boost in its march towards supremacy when it became a system font on the Apple macintosh computer and the default font in the desktop publishing programme QuarkXpress. As a commercial success, this was by no means unimportant. But it was as a display face that Helvetica reigned supreme.

Take a cursory glance through almost any design history book and Helvetica will feature prominently. A walk down any high street – in Britian at least – and you are likely to find it fighting for your attention, whether by the hand of an amateur or that of the professional.

Helvetica – homage to a typeface, is one of the few ‘picture books’ I would recommend. It is an honest attempt at telling a story through pictures, and it is a story that is in this instance, perhaps, best told that way.

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