Every decade, it seems, contains a single year that epitomizes its era. The Depression had 1933; the Sixties, 1968. In the Fifties, it was 1957, the year of the pill, Sputnik, Dr. Seuss, Little Rock, and more. Half a century later, U.S. News takes a look back.
Eisenhower confronts the political and moral crisis of integrating public schools.
The Brooklyn Dodgers' move to California sparked a migration fed by dreamers seeking great weather and high employment.
The "Mighty Mac" was a singular feat that would bridge the 5-mile gap between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.
Two midwestern teens go on a killing spree, inspiring films and songs for decades.
The author questioned conventional roles with The Feminine Mystique, a book that changed women's lives.
With Sputnik, the Soviets open a new frontier and catch America off-guard.
The strong, straight lines of the font shape corporate logos, government tax forms, and exit signs.
Millions of advertising dollars couldn't sell "an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon."
A versatile and gifted athlete, Jim Brown broke barriers on and off the playing field.
A Typeface for All Time
Hardworking helvetica gets the message across
It may look like the name of a hard rock band, but the beauty of Helvetica is that metaphorically speaking, it hardly makes a sound. Helvetica is a typeface, or more appropriately, the typeface of the 20th century. And, surely, it is the only typeface ever to have its 50th birthday observed with a major museum exhibit and an award-winning independent film.
"Helvetica is really a standout," says Christian Larsen, curator of the exhibition on the history of Helvetica at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "It helped define the typographic look of the 20th century, and I think it is here to stay."
It is certainly ubiquitous, if sometimes in a Big Brother sort of way. Hundreds of firms set brand names in its strong, straight lines, from icons of stability like 3m, Microsoft, and Sears to upstart retailers like American Apparel and Comme des Garçons. New York's signage, including that of its subway system, is set in Helvetica, as is virtually every lighted exit sign in every building in the country. The U.S. government is so sure of Helvetica's ability to lead that the typeface has become the default font for tax forms.
Helvetica wasn't always a leader. In fact, when the Swiss-run Haas Type Foundry first tried to compete with the popular Akzidenz Grotesk typeface in 1957, its attempt landed with a bit of a thud. The somewhat austere typeface, originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, was only modestly successful at gaining converts until four years later when the company rebranded itself with the strong, simple name that means Switzerland in Latin.
Modernist. Whether because of the branding or the growing movement of modernist design, Helvetica soon took off as the typeface of choice for a new generation—first as a favorite in advertising, then in 1985 becoming the choice of the masses. That was the year Apple introduced a Macintosh computer with Helvetica as one of its five fonts. Helvetica suddenly seemed the natural choice for a new century as well.
"Helvetica was introduced at a moment where postwar optimism was at its highest, at a time when—pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate—people had real confidence in modernism and modern institutions to solve the world's problems," says Michael Bierut, a partner in Pentagram, a New York design firm. It was "a beautifully machined, rationally resolved, entirely modern typeface that seemed absolutely suited to its times."
Not everyone is so generous, of course. In Lars Müller's book Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface, Wolfgang Weingart, a leader in experimental typography known as the father of "Swiss Punk," sniffed that anyone who uses Helvetica must know nothing about typefaces. He calls it "the epitome of ugliness."
And even those who do see its beautiful neutrality are sometimes given pause by its use. Tom Geismar, a well-known New York designer, noted that Helvetica is "like a good screwdriver; a reliable, efficient, easy-to-use tool. But put it in the wrong hands, and it's potentially lethal."
That, of course, can be said about most typefaces, or—with typefaces now popping up like mushrooms on a log—of many typefaces. But when it is used correctly, the beauty of any typeface, including Helvetica, is its ability to facilitate message delivery, its role as a mass communicator, an unseen persuader that helps readers understand both the message and the messenger. Like most typefaces, Helvetica "works its magic on an entirely subconscious level," says Bierut. "Its ubiquity and inherent authority are inescapable," he adds, noting that "if it's important to people's daily lives, it's largely without their knowledge or consent."Whether Helvetica will remain the typeface of choice is up for debate. Arial, which Minnesota designer Mark Simonson derides as "a knockoff riding on Helvetica's coattails," may already enjoy the greatest mass appeal, even if designers, marketers, and American companies still hold tightly to its competitor. And Helvetica's omnipresence could be its undoing.
While it was designed to be "neutral" and "unbiased," Gary Hustwit, creator of the film Helvetica, noted in an E-mail—typed in Helvetica—that over 50 years, Helvetica has "picked up baggage." Because it's used by big business and government, "when we look at a word set in Helvetica, we pick up the subtle feelings of authority, efficiency, [and] permanence." In some ways, its overuse may have left it powerless to steer people correctly, making not just the typeface but also the message invisible to some eyes.
Warning messages on cigarette packs are set in Helvetica, notes Hustwit, but "although it clearly says, 'Smoking kills,' apparently people aren't understanding the message. Maybe if it was set in a scary, ugly typeface, people would get the point."