“First learn a proper trade.” These were the words with which Max Miedinger’s father put an end to the debate on the future career of his 16-year-old son, who longed to become a painter. Instead, in the autumn of 1926, Miedinger junior
began an apprenticeship as a type setter with the Zurich printing company Jacques Bollmann
. Four years later, he knew for certain: “I want to be a designer, not spend the rest of my life fiddling with columns of type in galleys”. Evening classes with Johann Kohlmann
at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts
confirmed his interest. Finally, in 1936, Max Miedinger was able to put his talent to professional use – as a typographer in the advertising studio of the Globus
department store chain. There, over the ten years that followed, he created posters, newspaper advertisements, the corporate lettering and printing for in-house use.
Experimental Jetset’s Beatles tribute, set in Helvetica Black in 1966 (Image: FontShop)
After the Second World War, Miedinger left the bustle of Zurich and applied to work as a salesman at the Haas Type Foundry
in Münchenstein, near Basel. The director Eduard Hoffmann
was impressed by Miedinger’s versatility and, after seeing his notebook of sketches for new type, let him in on his “secret project”, which he was hoping would bring the Haas foundry new commercial success. For its competitor H. Berthold
was dangerously close to wooing away the Swiss company’s customers with its successful Akzidenz Grotesk
. Swiss Typography
was in its heyday, and yet even Switzerland’s own designers were using the bestselling Berlin typeface. Hoffmann hoped to put an end to this development with a new sans-serif, which Miedinger was to design. As a blueprint he used a linear sans-serif published by the Leipzig foundry Schelter & Giesecke
in 1880, Schelter Grotesk
A few months later, the first proofs of Neue Haas Grotesk
were on Hoffmann’s desk. He was delighted. Neue Haas Grotesk made its premiere in the summer of 1957. Two years on, Swiss Typography was spilling over into Germany. In Frankfurt’s Hedderichstraße, D. Stempel AG
, which had been the majority shareholder in the Haas Type Foundry since 1954, was giving great thought to how it could jump on this bandwagon. In June 1959, sales whiz Heinz Eul
proposed incorporating Neue Haas Grotesk into the Stempel range, specifically for the “advertising designers” as a weapon against Futura
(#5 on this list) and Akzidenz Grotesk
(#7 on this list). But he was not completely happy with the name. It needed a new one – and one that would make the purpose and geographical origin of the typeface immediately comprehensible. One morning, after a long and restless night, Eul put a letter suggesting the name “Helvetia” in the mailbox of his boss Erich Schultz-Anker
. He, in turn, after a brief consultation with Eul, changed this to “Helvetica”
, and launched the typeface in early 1961 – “unbearably late”, in Eul’s opinion, but it proved to be right in time.
This letter gave Helvetica its name in 1959. The original document is owned by Erik Spiekermann (Scan: Erik Spiekermann)
In the 1960s, the distinctively named typeface became an unparalleled international success. The ubiquity of Helvetica itself, and of a vast number of imitations, made it into something of a “typographical menace” in the eyes of some critics. Innumerable corporate designs – including those of Lufthansa, Bayer, Hoechst, Deutsche Bahn, BASF
– use Helvetica for their identity. This is not because of a lack of inspiration on the part of the designers, but because Helvetica’s popularity meant that it was always available – an important factor in the age of mechanical typesetting.
Title page of the Helvetica launch brochure by D. Stempel (Image: FontShop)
In 1983, D. Stempel designed Neue Helvetica
for the typesetting equipment manufacturer Linotype. In the course of this process, the various Helvetica fonts, which had evolved over time and did not always match one another, were harmonised. Only two years later, Linotype took over Stempel AG and decided to dissolve the company. In the years that followed, Neue Helvetica grew to include 51 fonts, and continued the success story begun by its predecessor.
When Linotype was defining the technical basis for Desktop
Publishing+++ (DTP) with Apple and Adobe in 1985, the original Helvetica returned to play a key role. Four fonts from the Helvetica family were among the first eleven fonts built into the Apple laser printer, establishing a “typographical starter kit” for computer-based design work.
Despite their criticisms, typography experts agree that Helvetica embodies the ideal of objectivity that was propagated by Swiss graphic design at that time. This feature has made the “featureless typeface” into an icon of modern design.