Helvetica celebrates its 50th birthday this year. So says I.D. Magazine in its April issue.
A little research shows that when it was designed in 1957, it was initially called Neue Haas Grotesk -- kind of a grotesque-sounding (no pun intended) name. Thankfully, it was renamed Helvetica, taken from Helvetia, Latin for Switzerland, where the Haas Type Foundry was located.
It's been called one of the most-loved and respected typefaces and certainly it is one of the most widely-used. Its clean sans serif look reflected the move toward modernism and the clean look typical of Swiss design at the time.
In 1961, Haas Foundry's parent companies Stempel and Linotype began marketing the font worldwide. Some critics have written that Univers is a better-design system. But Helvetic won out, it seems, for two key reasons.
Linotype did a better job of marketing the new typeface. Swiss design was the "in" thing in the early '60s, and the sales pitch for Helvetica was smart and to the point, essentially saying "You want Swiss design? Here it is."
In an interview in I.D. Magazine, filmmaker Gary Hustwit sums it up -- "Helvetica was Swiss design in a can." (Hustwit recently released a documentary film titled Helvetica, which premiered at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin in April.)
Ad agencies and design firms wanting to be modern and trendy began using Helvetica widely in ad headlines and copy, in company brochures and even in logos. Helvetica is still embazoned on many corporate headquarters.
The font got another big boost with the advent of personal computers. Steve Jobs is reputedly serious about typefaces and he, so the story goes, selected Helvetica to be bundled into the typefaces available in the early Macs.
It used to be that most people, unless they were designers or involved in printing and design, generally had little or no knowledge of different typefaces. With computers, however, we've all become instant designers. And by simply clicking on the "font" bar in our Word documents, we've come to know names like Arial, Tahoma, Century Gothic and the ubiquitous Times New Roman.
But even after 50 years, Helvetica has a special place on many designers' tables.
When you're playing around with different fonts on your computer, which ones do you enjoy and why? Just curious. One I like is Comic Sans -- it's clean, but not at all plain. For letters and news releases, though, I stick with either Times New Roman or Arial.