Friday, 19 November 2010

Thoughts on Helvetica

Above: Univers

Above: Helvetica

I was talking to the designer Will Holder this week and the old chestnut about Helvetica’s popularity came up. Will works as a book designer/typographer and is mainly based in Holland, but also does a lot of work in Germany. He is very interested in how the sound of languages can influence type. He is also really into poetry and we had a fascinating discussion on American poets and how their voices are materialised in verse. In particular the ‘sound’ of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings.
For some reason we started talking about Futura and that without it we wouldn’t have Frutiger’s Univers and this brought us to Helvetica. It has often been said that Helvetica was drawn by an idealist and that Univers was drawn by a type designer, but there is something that links the two and that is that besides the fact the fonts were designed in the 1950s, both designers were Swiss and the Swiss have to cope with three national languages; German, Italian and French.
Helvetica could be seen as a cleaning up of a Grotesque typeface from the 19th century and it is this ‘sanitisation’ that interested me. Is it in fact to do with the ‘voice in the head’ that all fonts give us? Futura is in effect still German, even though it is trying to be modern, its weight and tone is still Blackletter and above all the designer ‘sounded’ the text that would be set in Futura in German. I think this is why Helvetica is used more than Univers and why Univers is liked by typographers more than designers. It could be that Frutiger was consciously ‘designing’ Univers with that Futura German voice in his head and that Helvetica is truly Swiss and is ‘sounded’ across all three languages and is therefore in effect ‘polyglot’. The fact that Helvetica’s designer Miedinger used to be a customer counsellor for the Globus department store and typeface sales representative perhaps meaning that his ‘voice in the head’ was more user friendly or more like ‘Esperanto’ that failed aspiration of a common language.
Helvetica is very ‘one size fits all’. Most of the individual letters when laid on top of each other can be seen to be basically the same width and proportion. In Univers you have far more adjustment of width and stroke. Apertures are designed to be read as if you are organically adjusting a relationship rather than closing one form off from another. Univers uses classic roman proportions; and Helvetica relies on a basic consistency of proportion that runs throughout the typeface. Univers is also spaced for text, which means you can use it in small sizes, which I would say is Helvetica’s great weakness.
However perhaps Helvetica is the real Esperanto for our time.

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