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How Helvetica’s non-committal clarity made it one of the most successful Swiss exports

Some typefaces are drawn by a single hand, while others need a whole posse of designers to give them shape and get them out into the world. Helvetica had passed through several iterations over six decades before it was taken up in the late fifties by Mike Parker, the British-American typographer who died this week at age 84.

Mr. Parker did more than anyone else to make the clean and simple font ubiquitous. American Apparel, Toyota, Microsoft, the National Film Board and countless other companies and government agencies use it to present their names and crystallize their brands.

For many people, it's the font they see everywhere but never really notice. It's the carrier of maximum content in minimal form, designed to deliver a message without adding any special typographical flavour. Wim Crouwel, a veteran Dutch graphic designer interviewed in Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary Helvetica, put it this way: "The meaning is in the content of the text, and not in the typeface." Mr. Parker was more poetic about Helvetica's appeal. "It's not a letter that's bent to shape; it's a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space," he told Mr. Hustwit's camera. "What it's all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape, the figure/ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters."

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Take that, Harry Lime

In the 1949 film The Third Man, Orson Welles's character quips that centuries of war in Italy yielded the Renaissance, while a long era of peace in Switzerland birthed only the cuckoo clock (which originated, in fact, in Germany). A few years later, in 1957, two Swiss graphic designers tweaked a 60-year-old German font into a new form they called Helvetica (Latin for Swiss). Mr. Parker spotted the font, liked its non-committal clarity, and began promoting it in the United States. Its neutrality and lack of ornament suited the mid-century taste for boxy buildings and streamlined shapes. Thus began an international career that has made Helvetica one of the most ubiquitous and successful Swiss exports.

Say it with a billboard

Helvetica is the name font for companies that sell a huge range of products and services, from luxury cars (BMW) to hamburgers (McDonald's), from bus rides (Greyhound) to transatlantic flights (Lufthansa). Fierce competitors arm themselves with it, including Microsoft and Apple. Somehow, we never get confused, never think "Egg McMuffin" when we see a Toyota dealership. Helvetica's not such a winner on the page, however, for reading book-length stretches of type. "There's some science to show that for novels, a serif typeface is easier to read," says Dave Watson, creative director of design at TAXI, a Toronto advertising and design company. But so what? Helvetica's strength on a billboard, jet chassis or T-shirt has made it one of the dominant fonts of the public world.

Screen test

The popularization of desktop computers in the 1980s demanded typefaces that could communicate on cathode ray screens, whose resolution was far lower than the average LCD screen today. Serif letters, or any that approached the flow of hand-written script, tended to run together and confuse the eye; while the "grotesques" (the original term for sans serif) stayed relatively sharp. Helvetica secured a place among the 11 fonts bundled with Apple's early desktops, which meant that computer graphic designers were pretty much obliged to use it. Score another crucial platform for a font on its way up.

Little black dress

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Helvetica's use and appeal has waxed and waned over the past six decades, but its lack of ornament, its sense of style beyond style, has made it one of the great survivors of 20th-century graphic design. It's like the little black dress: a choice that is always within bounds and sometimes more elegant than showier options. Therein, too, lies one of Helvetica's weaknesses. "For some people, it becomes a default, because of its clarity and neutrality," says Mr. Watson. "In the right hands, it's brilliant, but in hands less skilled, it can be very boring and almost medicinal. The federal government's use of Helvetica looks atrocious in most cases."

Divide and conquer

For something designed to be inconspicuous, Helvetica can be a lightning rod for fierce opinions. "It's interesting that a typeface can conjure up so many feelings, from love to hate," says Mr. Watson. In 2007, New York's Museum of Modern Art marked Helvetica's 50th anniversary with an exhibition devoted to the script that New Yorkers see every time they enter their subway. That show, and the concurrent appearance of Mr. Hustwit's film, put Helvetica into play as a topic of popular discussion. For a while it seemed as if everyone was talking about the lean, clean Swiss typeface, thereby helping it become what it is today: a rock star among fonts.

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