How Helvetica Conquered The World
What is it about the Swiss? Or, to be precise: what is it about the Swiss and their sans serif typefaces? Helvetica and Univers both emerged from Switzerland in the same year–1957–and went out to shape the modern world. They would sort out not just transport systems but whole cities, and no typefaces ever looked more sure of themselves or their purpose. The two fonts appeared at a time when Europe had thrown off all shackles of postwar austerity and had already made a strong contribution to midcentury modernism. You could sit in your Bertoia Diamond chair (Italy, 1952) and read about a forthcoming concept called Ikea (Sweden, 1958), while all around you buildings began to get squarer and more functional. Helvetica and Univers were perfectly suited to this period, and their use reflected another pervasive force of the age–the coming of mass travel and modern consumerism.
Helvetica is a font of such practicality–and, its adherents would suggest, such beauty–that it is both ubiquitous and something of a cult. The typeface even inspired a compelling and successful movie (Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica), whose premise is that on the streets of the world, the font is like oxygen. You have little choice but to breathe it in.
A few years ago, a New Yorker called Cyrus Highsmith put his life on the line by trying to spend a day without Helvetica. As a type designer himself, he knew it would be a challenge. Whenever he saw something spelled out in the typeface he would have to avert his eyes. He wouldn’t take any Helvetica-signed transport, nor buy any Helvetica-branded products. He might have to walk into New York City from its suburbs; possibly go hungry all day.
His troubles began as soon as he climbed out of bed. Most of his clothes had washing instructions in Helvetica, and he struggled to find something that didn’t; he settled, eventually, on an old T-shirt and army fatigues. For breakfast he had Japanese tea and some fruit, foregoing his usual yogurt (Helvetica label). He couldn’t read The New York Times as that had Helvetica in its tables. The subway was out of the question, though to his relief he found a Helvetica-free bus.
At lunch he thought he’d try Chinatown but had to switch restaurants as the first had a familiar-looking menu. At work he had, in advance, deleted Helvetica from his computer, but he couldn’t–obviously–browse the Internet. He was late back home because he couldn’t consult the timetable, and had to be highly selective about his cash, as Helvetica graces the new U.S. dollar bills. Inevitably, there was Helvetica on his credit cards, too. In the evening he thought he’d watch TV but the controls had Helvetica on them. So he read The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, set in Electra.