Happy 50th, Helvetica

Once upon a time, there was a typeface called Helvetica. It was sans-serif, clean, beautiful, and used in all places where clean, easy-to-read typefaces were needed.

When Microsoft wanted to create a universal typeface, it could not take Helvetica, so they “invented” a similar typeface, called Arial, for their operating system. Those of us who grew up with Helvetica still prefer it, and can tell the difference. The real Helvetica comes with all Apple computers.

Can you tell the difference between Helvetical and Arial? Take the test to find out.

Helvetica’s half-century mark is being celebrated by the release of a documentary on typeface design and use, as well as a special exhibit at the Mueseum of Modern Art in New York. The show opened on April 7 and will continue till early 2008.”Helvetica is one of those typefaces that everybody knows, everybody sees, but they don’t really see it at the same time because it’s so good at its job. It communicates efficiently and quickly without imposing itself,” said Christian Larsen, curator of the MoMA show.

Helvetica is the typeface used by the New York Subway system, and Harley-
Davidson motorcycles
. How did the typeface come to be so universally loved?

In 1957 Edouard Hoffmann and Max Miedinger, two designers in Muenchenstein (near Basel, Switzerland) were searching for a way to create an easy-to-read typeface.

According to a story in the Washington Post, “Miedinger, who once wanted to become an artist before training as a typesetter, came up with a design based on Hoffmann’s instructions, and by the summer, a clean sans-serif script had been born, which was given the name ‘Neue Haas Grotesk.’

“The company’s marketing department soon realized the name would have to be changed to something more pronounceable for an international market. So, to reflect its origins, they called it “Helvetica” — Latin for ‘Swiss.'”

So celebrate in an appropriate typographical way–cake and candles are fine, and be glad that we have Helvetica so we don’t all have to use Comic Sans and Papyrus.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2007 Quinn McDonald, All rights reserved.