Helvetica. It’s the design equivalent to Marmite. Some love it. Others can’t stomach it. There is no denying, however, that it’s one of the most iconic fonts to have existed (sorry Comic Sans).
Originally designed in 1957 by Swiss typographer Max Miedinger, 2017 marks Helvetica’s 60th Birthday. Miedinger’s aim was to create a typeface which would have no intrinsic value other than its ability to impart clarity. He succeeded. In post-war Europe, Helvetica stood out against a vast array of decorative, unsubtle fonts. It was by no means the first font to try and appear neutral, but quickly became popular thanks to its clean appearance and tight letter spacing which made it easily readable, especially in large print.
Although initially designed for signage, Helvetica continues to be very versatile. Corporations, in droves, adapted the font for use in their logos, taking advantage of its supposed neutrality.
Some of the more recognisable iterations include:
American Apparel used Helvetica to (reportedly) poke fun at the font’s prevalence in corporate America. Arguably not as funny now they’re facing bankruptcy.
Not a lot of legroom when it comes to letter spacing for America Airlines.
Microsoft going for a different angle and upping the italics game. Edgy.
Nothing says Panasonic quite like Helvetica.
Today, it’s not so clear-cut as to what sort of meaning Helvetica imparts. Depending on how you look at it, it can be either one of the most important typographical contributions of the last century, or simply “meh.” After 60 years it still manages to split opinion.
Web Safe Fonts
Helvetica’s relationship with the web hasn’t been so starry, mostly because it’s traditionally not thought of as a web safe font. When you load a web page, your browser renders the onscreen text using fonts installed on your computer. If a web page is asking your browser to render a font that isn’t installed on your machine, then a substitute/default will be used. As an example, let’s say you design a web page with Helvetica as the font. If a visitor doesn’t have Helvetica installed on their computer, then the browser will select a similar font which the user does have installed. It’s no big deal in the sense that the content will still display, but in terms of design, it’s going to look a little different.
Web-safe fonts are fonts which can be universally used on the web.This is an initiative started by Microsoft in 1996 using Arial, Courier New, Times New Roman, Comic Sans, Impact, Georgia, Trebuchet, Webdings and Verdana. They became staples for web designers because they were free to use (no usage rights restrictions) and were likely to display as intended, given they were bundled in with most operating systems (namely Windows and Mac OS). Linux is a notable exception.
Although Helvetica may seem like it’s everywhere, it doesn’t come pre-installed on Windows. Given this is still the most popular home operating system, using Helvetica online was previously thought of as slightly risky.
Helvetica has another drawback when used on the web. When displayed at smaller sizes, Helvetica’s compactness and uniformity can make it hard to read. In 1983, a variant called Helvetica Neue was produced to improve legibility, which was again refined in 2011 especially for onscreen use. Another thing to bear in mind is that using Helvetica commercially requires a licence.
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