Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface, review
Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface
Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2002
256 pages, £32
If you accept Lars Müller’s recent book Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface as it was intended, there is not much to say in the way of a review. You might be able to describe something about the book’s form: it is a self-consciously small hardback, with pages whose perforated edges require the reader to manually separate them (you might or might not judge this feature a gimmick). You could say something about how the book is organised and what it contains: following a perfunctory introduction by Müller, there are pages that alternately show what you might term ‘Helvetica High’ and ‘Helvetica Low’. For example, on one page you see the Otl Aicher-designed Lufthansa corporate identity that used Helvetica; on the next, photos of shoddy restaurant fasciae that used Helvetica. You could then go on to quote one of the quotations about Helvetica that are threaded through the book, commenting on how perceptive or provocative the quote is. The review could, by that point, end easily enough; whether or not a real verdict on Helvetica had been delivered, the implication would be that the book is alright and possibly even of interest to people who buy books having to do with ‘typography’ (read: typefaces). But if you approached Helvetica a little less complacently, with the intent of asking questions about some of its assumptions, premises, and contradictions, there would be more to say.
Instead of trying to avoid the crutch of quoting from the book’s collection of quotes, I will give in right from the start. This terse one, from type designer Ed Benguiat, appears on the same page as a reproduction of a frequently reproduced Josef Müller-Brockmann poster: ‘You don’t need a reason to like something.’ Whether Benguiat meant that broadly or just about Helvetica is unclear, since no commentary accompanies the quote, but its inclusion in the book makes one think it should be considered in connection with Helvetica. I assume the quote was chosen for its apparent irreverence; it seems to be suggesting, ‘Don’t take all this too seriously. These are just typefaces, and when it gets right down to it, you can like the ones you like because you like them – for whatever reason or for no reason at all – and that will be good enough’. Although I bet Müller would disagree, among all the Helvetica one-liners set in small type in the book’s margins, Benguiat’s may be one of the most relevant and (unintentionally) revealing.
Müller’s book, according to its subtitle, is a homage, but it is a homage that never gets round to truly justifying or explaining why people should like, let alone extol, the Helvetica typeface. It is not that Müller’s appreciations are half-hearted. On the back cover we are told that Helvetica is an ‘icon of modern design’, ‘the preferred typeface of leading professionals’, and ‘an all-time favourite’. In Müller’s brief and informal introductory text, more bold characterisations are heaped on: Helvetica is ‘the conditio sine qua non of typography’; ‘one of the most popular [typefaces] in history’; a socialist typeface that is ‘accessible to all’; the typeface that best expresses any message ‘anywhere, anytime, in any medium’; a typeface that makes people want to read ‘anything written in [it]’; ‘the quintessence of modern aesthetics’; and finally, according to Müller, Helvetica may well be nothing less than an eternal typeface that ‘will always be there, as a measure of everything else’.
Given the tenor of these claims, you would expect some kind of elaboration – an attempt, however slight, to substantiate the praise – either in Müller’s text or in the quotes. But I can’t find a single valid defence of Helvetica’s merits in the entire book. The closest Müller ever comes to attempting an explanation of Helvetica’s essential greatness is when he says vague things like: ’[Helvetica’s] normality and understated self-assurance’ inspire ‘a feeling of freedom’. I may well believe that Helvetica evokes these kinds of feelings in some people, but if I myself am missing an innate understanding of this typeface’s excellence (and I am), I could reasonably have difficulty understanding this reaction. The book’s running quotes provide little help in this respect, with the few that do address the typeface’s qualities with any specificity sounding just as dubious (‘The perfection of Helvetica is its letterspacing capabilities – it leads to perfection in shape and form, but like a beautiful person it often lacks personality.’) as the ones that make no attempt whatsoever (‘Helvetica. The cream on the pie.’). For the reader interested in getting at the basis for the homage, the rationale for the far-fetched quotes, or the source of all the strong feelings, the book’s elusiveness must be puzzling.[signup]
Here the relevance of Benguiat’s quote comes to light: maybe it is possible that the liking of Helvetica is, for the most part, arbitrary and inexplicable. Maybe there is really nothing substantial underlying the praise in Müller’s book. To explore this possibility, I can imagine an alternate, more pragmatic Helvetica book. It would begin by looking into the typeface’s origins. What caused Haas, the Swiss type foundry, to undertake the design when it did in the mid-1950s? Was it as simple as some people have said: that the type called Haas Neue Grotesk (or New Haas Grotesque), later renamed Helvetica by another type foundry, was made in response to trends in continental graphic design? What choices did Haas make in selecting the 19th-century model – or models – that it would base its new type on? And how closely did Eduard Hoffman, Haas’s director, guide Max Miedinger, the Haas employee credited with the initial design of Helvetica, in the drawing of the adapted typeface?
After exhausting questions like these, the hypothetical book would try to situate Helvetica within the larger context of 20th-century typeface design, and it would lay out some criteria for how typefaces can be evaluated. It would probably argue that though personal taste can never be entirely rejected, and that though there is no way to make entirely objective evaluations of things like typefaces, definite qualities and features can be discerned that may elevate some types above others. Applying these notions to Helvetica, the book would conclude that the typeface is intrinsically unremarkable, and that it probably owes its renown to good timing compounded by the tendency of some to ascribe false qualities – false ideals, even – to typefaces. The book might finally echo what the typeface designer Walter Tracy wrote in the late 1980s: that designs like Helvetica were lucky to have been brought out in a place and at a time in which ‘the commonplace [among typefaces was] elevated to undeserved status and favour’.
Helpful as a clear-headed book like this would be, it would still fall short of an explanation of how Helvetica has managed to retain its undeserved status – so much so that a homage to it could be published at this late date. Though Müller suggests that Helvetica’s survival must have to do with its inherent timelessness, that is unlikely. I have looked at lots of typefaces and I am sure that, compared to similar types in its class and even typefaces in general, there is nothing elemental about Helvetica. More likely is that Helvetica appeared at the right time, was marketed effectively, became fashionable, was widely copied and adapted by various typesetting equipment manufacturers, and because of the ubiquity it acquired, fell into the role of the western world’s default sanserif. In retrospect it seems that some typeface had to occupy this place, and after all, there was no reason why it shouldn’t have been Helvetica. But there were also no good reasons why it should have been Helvetica, and not some other typeface—contrary to what the book wants us to believe.
Still, it is hard to completely dismiss the evidence, based on its volume and variety, that Müller and his team have compiled. Again and again, there Helvetica is: traffic signs, book covers, newspapers, corporate logos, shop windows. Even the most certain Helvetica sceptics might begin to doubt themselves when confronted with the book’s array of examples. But again, if you resist viewing the book’s contents as they were intended, the whole thing can easily be turned on its head. Rather than reinforce Helvetica’s exceptional character, the pictures and reproductions can instead work to expose how unremarkable this typeface is. Take two instances of ‘Helvetica High’ from the book: a Swiss public service poster from the early 1960s and a Dutch cultural organisation’s web site made four decades later. Without judging whether either is ‘well-designed’, I can be confident that the selection of typeface in both cases did not determine the relative success of the designs. I can just as easily imagine the poster and the web site having used any number of other typefaces, with no enhancement or lessening of the designs’ effectiveness. And I think the same can be said for nearly all of the other items that Müller included in his book. Taken together, these examples reassert a familiar point: yes, typefaces are important to an extent, and bad ones can cause bad problems; but most of the time, it is hard to claim that a particular typeface (Helvetica or otherwise) has either undermined or rescued what would have been a success or a failure. And it is this conventional wisdom – the role of typefaces is relatively minor within the larger context of typography – that points to another of the book’s falsehoods: that Helvetica confers greatness and enables success, and that its role is always integral.[social]
Of course this only applies to the posters, record covers, and so on – the designed items. When it comes to the pedestrian applications of Helvetica, the book operates under a different set of mistaken assumptions. Müller’s rationale for filling pages with pictures of Helvetica on subway kiosks and ‘under construction’ signs relates to his understanding of the typeface as ‘the perfume of the city’ (a strange phrase). He thinks that Helvetica’s public ubiquity is neither detrimental nor benign; for him, surprisingly enough, it is what makes the urban landscape visually interesting. But where Müller sees the ‘charm of the ordinary’ in Helvetica’s omnipresence, other people – assuming they take any notice at all – could just as easily find oppressive blandness and homogenisation. That, as the book’s photos show, the ‘no parking’ signs in Denver have been made using the same typeface as those in Dortmund, does not seem to fit with Müller’s view of how Helvetica contributes to the vibrancy and visual diversity of our cities. Whether the pictures support Müller’s view can be decided by the reader, but it is nonetheless difficult to accept the way the book never admits the possibility of a contradiction here.
This gets to what is most frustrating about Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface. It manages to avoid exploring any of the questions that surround Helvetica—interesting questions whose discussion might have made for an interesting book. One such question that came up repeatedly as I flipped through the book has to do with the assumption that typefaces – and especially typefaces like Helvetica – can still be thought of as single, fixed entities. Toward the end of the book, Müller includes a disclaimer: ‘I wish to point out that seven examples of a typeface that is not Helvetica are hidden in this book.’ But how was Müller sure that all but those seven decoys were in fact Helvetica? When the original Helvetica typeface was adapted in the 1960s and ‘70s for use on typesetting machines and for rub-down, stencil, and sign lettering, it must have been subject to a range of distortions. Could one company’s ‘Helvetica’ – rendered as four-inch high plastic letters for use on restaurant menu boards – be the same as another company’s ‘Helvetica’ meant for display on coarse LED grids? Both may have had a common origin in the Helvetica typeface’s forms, but the end results are quite disparate. As this process of adaptation and re-interpretation continued over the last few decades, it stands to reason that there developed a huge number of Helveticas (along with typefaces derived from Helvetica derivatives) – some of which are vastly divergent from the original, and some that just show subtle variation. The computer-based type design techniques that have become prevalent over the last fifteen years can only have accelerated these mutations.
Maybe better than any other typeface, Helvetica highlights the problems with the way we have come to understand and talk about types. How much can a given design be modified, enhanced, or extended before it is no longer itself? Müller’s book includes examples of Helvetica Rounded and Helvetica Compressed. Are these typefaces really ‘Helvetica’ – i.e. that typeface being paid homage? The Rounded version does show a clear connection to Helvetica proper, though the same can’t be said for Helvetica Compressed. That family of three heavy, narrow typefaces was made not by Max Miedinger in the mid-1950s, but by Matthew Carter in the mid 1960s for Mergenthaler Linotype, a Brooklyn manufacturer of typesetting equipment. Carter’s design has nothing to do with Miedinger’s, and was actually based on another Swiss sanserif alphabet called Schmalfette Grotesk. Yet because the Linotype marketing department decided it would be good to associate the new design with a successful brand, Carter’s typeface still trades under the Helvetica name today.
These may sound like fine points, but in the context of a book about something as confusing and multifarious as Helvetica, they would be worth taking seriously. Had the author considered how difficult it is to be sure there is a single thing called ‘Helvetica’, there is a chance the homage might have been entirely bypassed, the book instead siding with one of its more incendiary quotes, from Helmut Schmid: ‘For me, this typeface does not even exist.’