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When we speak of design, we often refer to architecture, furniture and graphics, but rarely do we talk about letters. "Typeface" is a typography term that refers to the visual characteristics of a set of letters and numbers, and no typeface is more universally used, imitated, loved and loathed than Helvetica. A Google image search of the word Helvetica speaks volumes of its iconic place in 20th century communication design. What is is that makes this typeface so ubiquitous?
Developed in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger, Helvetica is the Modernist's dream - a sans serif typeface that eschews ornamentation for clean, crisp function. And it can be found absolutely everywhere.
On the New York City subway:
In the mark of some of the world's largest corporations:
And all over the place in graphic designer tributes such as this one (clearly inspired by the Russian artist Kasmir Malevich):
It arouses a range of emotions among designers. Some love it. Some don't:
Some imitate it. It's younger cousin Arial (developed in 1982), has been packaged with Microsoft operating systems since 1992 and is one of the most widely used computer fonts today.
I'll admit, the more I look at Helvetica, the more I start to notice that the same rules that dictate good typography apply to good design as well. You don't have to go far to see it, we have some on our website. Check out some of these fixtures below. There's the variable shaped bowl of Helvetica's "d" and "b" that reminds me of this Lite Source Kito Green Table Lamp:
And there are the straight, flattened finials at the top of both the Helvetica letter "t" and this Possini Euro Design Triple Column Wood Table Lamp:
I'm not suggesting that one influenced the other, but it is fun to note how the formal rules that govern typeface design are very much at play in the larger design world. The Modernist design principles that informed the creation of Helvetica are as ubiquitous as the the typeface itself.
Love it, hate it, use it, or don't. Whatever your reaction to Helvetica, one thing is certain: it's everywhere.
Images: AM Design Perspectives, Thirteen, Thomas J. Quinn, DeviantArt, Roberto Blake, Whitezine, Penny Finder,
Iconic Design: Helvetica
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