Helvetica – no frills no thrills

Helvetica is the name of the world’s most famous architectural typefaces. Paul Gapp a former architecture of the Chicago Tribune rather unkindly said it has, “no frills, no curlicues, no personality. It is neutral, anonymous and dull.” Helvetica, however, has grown into a global phenomenon exhibiting both corporate and cool. Part of its charm is that it is so neutral.

Helvetica can be seen throughout the Western world, especially on signs in office foyers, airports, hospitals, schools and other places where people need guidance. And while architects made Helvetica famous for the first time, designers of all persuasions now favour it.

Helvetica sign on subway entrance in New York
Helvetica sign on subway entrance in New York

Once you acquire the knack of recognising it, in fact, Helvetica lettering is inescapable. The architects who started all this were artistic revolutionaries of the Bauhaus whose less-is-more design style is still a ‘catch cry’ for contemporary visual design.

In 1919 Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus movement in Weimar, Germany. From the start, the Bauhaus has gone beyond architecture and has been involved in painting, sculpture and the graphic arts.

The philosophy of the Bauhaus was to remove the superfluous elements and get down to the bare bones of things. With everybody at the Bauhaus insubordinate to adornment, it was barely astounding that they would, in the long run, get around to typefaces And so it was that Bauhaus architect-painter typographer Herbert Bayer turned his attention to invent a clean and straightforward style of lettering.

The surprising thing about types in the 1920s was that they changed relatively little for so long, despite the tumultuous changes in other applied arts. Typestyles already designed in the 16th century were still in daily use.

Even the energetic artists at the Bauhaus did not find it easy to create a new typeface. To design a new type, a designer must recreate the alphabet’s 26 letters in capital and lowercase form-plus numerals, a question mark, etc.

Bayer carried out his task in much the same spirit as the architects and designers at Bauhaus. If the latter removed all sculptural and other ornamental elements from structures, Bayer would likewise remove every small strange stroke and nuance from his alphabet icons.

And he did this by designing a mechanical look typeface whose strokes were all equal in width and had no adornments. It was his ” universal type. “

Swiss typographers soon refined the typeface and named it Helvetica. When the simple lines of the Bauhaus architecture suddenly dominated after the Second World War, Helvetica ‘s minimalist look became popular as well. It’s been a match made in heaven.

Architects still prefer Helvetica because it is all about clarity and prevents decisions involving types with strong personalities.

Sign makers and graphic designers also like it because it can be used in any size from small to large without losing its readability or its peculiar appearance. A word or number printed only 2.5 cm high in Helvetica can be seen at 12 metres. It may be neutral, but technically it’s excellent.

Unfortunately, in the printing of books and magazines, Helvetica and other plain types of small sizes have long been abused. These types are excellent for headlines, short captions below images and other short typographic elements. However, when they are used for long articles or books, they are tough to read.

Helvetica and her trim cousins do not have thick and thin strokes that contrast. They also lack ” serifs, ” small hooks and bars to form a letter so that the eye and brain can recognise them in a millisecond.

Not surprisingly, Bayer himself began the overuse of San- Serif type. It appears in a book called ” Bauhaus” that Bayer designed and edited in 1938. The Bauhaus grip on typography persists today, even though its absolute architectural dominance has been drastically reduced.

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