June 7, 2020

#3 The typography we love loving

You know Helvetica even if you don't know it.

Every day you come across, without knowing it, the most popular typeface family in history, logos, signs, headlines, texts and websites. It has its own documentary, posters, all kinds of merchandising, fans and even detractors. The question, if you are not a designer, is what's all the fuss about a font? We’ll try to answer it.


Max Miedinger designed it in 1956. Do many other designs stand the test of time so elegantly? The answer is NO, Helvetica is still going strong.

Thousands of iconic logos designed especially in the 90s used a variable of the Helvetica family: FedEx, American Airlines, Jeep, Parmalat, Lufthansa, Knoll, The North Face, 3M, Staples, Scotch, Target, American Apparel, Microsoft, Verizon, Crate & Barrel, and the list goes on and on.

The documentary "Helvetica: The Film (2007)" produced and directed by Gary Hustwit (also known for Rams, Objectified, Urbanized and Workplace) marks the 50th anniversary of the typeface. It's a super interesting selection of the most influential contemporary designers' opinions: Erik Spiekermann, Paula Scher, Massimo Vignelli, Michael Bierut. The best way to understand the phenomenon for non-designers and the best way to spend 97 min for those who are.

Helvetica is like water.
It’s essential.


No reasonable designer in his/her right mind can argue against the technical aspect of a typeface. However, there are other arguments that can be accepted: a typeface that was considered modern and revolutionary at its time, 60 years later can be boring, lacking rhythm or character, and above all, repetitive to the point of exhaustion, predetermined, typical, or the easy option

The same typeface that was considered modern and revolutionary to Vignelli is seen as boring, regimented, and enforcing the status quo by Paula Scher in her interview in the film.

“When I was in art school… I had rebelled against the Swiss international style because the act of organizing the Helvetica typeface on a grid reminded me of cleaning up my room,” she says.

Erik Spiekerman feels similarly, and has perhaps the choicest words in the film for Helvetica’s character:

“A real typeface needs rhythm, it needs contrast, it comes from handwriting. That’s why I can read your handwriting, you can read mine, and I’m sure our handwriting is miles away from Helvetica or anything that would be considered legible, but we can read it because there’s a rhythm for it, there’s a contrast to it. Helvetica hasn’t got any of that.”

Nemesis: ARIAL.

The vilely copied font used by the whole world when opening a word document and writing a depressing essay. Don't use Arial, Google Fonts are free (Montserrat, Lato, Roboto).

Now, let's play for a while! Here's a fun game

A little bit of botox

Nothing lasts forever, design is not indifferent to the passing of time. Logos, typefaces, systems, identities, everything needs updating (Ka Ching :)
In 1984, a new version of Helvetica was created, in digital format: Helvetica Neue
35 years later, Monotype decided to refresh the typeface to embrace the 21st century. Helvetica Now maintains the design foundation of the original typeface:


You've come this far and you can't believe we're still talking about a typeface? Let's go a little bit further.
Monotype redesigned the 40,000 characters of the typeface to make it more readable in a smaller scale (apple watch screen for example), and work perfectly well on giant billboards.
This is Helvetica Now: for everyone, everywhere, for everything.


Psychologists say everything communicates.... and so do designers. Everything a brand says or do, or doesn't say or do builds an image in their consumers.
In this report, Miguel Zorraquino and his team, show 10 communication strategies used by massive brands in times of crisis (we promise to try to stop talking about Coronavirus soon):

Some of the most interesting ones:

  • Renovate to help.
  • Companies are reshaping their offer in a wave of solidarity.
  • E-commerce power
  • E-commerce is consolidating its position as the main point of sale.
  • Goal: to raise awareness
  • Communication becomes instructive and emotional.
  • Culture Maker
  • DIY (do it yourself) spirit for the common welfare.
The new challenges created by the pandemic are so obvious that we have no choice but to face them, because it is well known that adaptation is the key to evolution.

The Worm is Back!

We all saw Falcon 9 launch with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. We also saw something else, the original NASA logo, designed in 1974 by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, founders of the New York studio Danne & Blackburn. This logo, "the worm" has not been used since 1992.

The first logo, designed in 1959, amicably called "the meatball", is a perfect example of the aesthetics of the time: a heavy circle (planet), heavy serif typography, and a rocket in a starry sky. 
A very difficult logo to reproduce, complicated to scale, and quite ugly. It has a nostalgic and melancholic touch, but it's clearly not the logo for an organisation that sends people into space.
And like almost all brands, NASA uses a secondary typeface for its communications, and yes, Helvetica strikes back :)

Cute things we need to keep living

Standards Manual, is an independent publishing house established in 2014 in NYC, that aims to preserve historic and very valuable pieces of design for future generations, like this beautiful NASA logo user manual that I need to have ASAP.

The worm is back. And just in time to mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil.

Thanks for reading!

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