The Null Device

Helvetica and its discontents

Swiss typographer Bruno Maag has nothing kind to say about Helvetica; the supposed apotheosis of High Modernism and the Swiss/International Style is, in his opinion, a greatly inferior typeface promoted to dominance by a powerful marketing machine over the far superior Univers, and raved about by the clueless (and not only that, but typically clueless Britons and Americans) who bought the gimmick that it is somehow an authentic example of Swiss Modernist design:
What galled me most in the movie [Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica] was when Massimo Vignelli said that Helvetica was a Modernist typeface – No! No! Helvetica is anything but Modernist, Clearly it has its roots in Akzidenz Grotesk and that was designed in 1899, which is Victorian as far as I am concerned. Akzidenz is a fantastic font but it’s not Modernist, it’s got a really antique feel about it, which again shows that Max Miedinger [Helvetica’s designer] didn't have a clue about type design. He was the salesman at [foundry] Haas’sche Schriftgießerei for Christ’s sake.
This is reminiscent of the criticisms of Arial, that Helvetica knockoff used by people who aren't into fonts but have a Windows PC and want to make something look modern and/or clean. While it's universally acknowledged that Arial is a bastardisation of Monotype Grotesque shoehorned into Helvetica-like spacings, and thus not an authentic example of the High Modernist typography it gets mistaken for, the claim that Helvetica is not authentically Modernist is bound to set the cat among the pigeons more; it's not that long since Helvetica's 50th anniversary, which coincided with commemorative books, hagiographic articles and, of course, Gary Hustwit's documentary, which conspired to beatify the sans-serif. It does make some sense, though; I've seen claims that Helvetica's roots (and those of Akzidenz Grotesk and the grotesks which preceded it) lie in 19th-century hand-painted shop signage more than in clean Modernism.

Bruno Maag so detests Helvetica that he created a Modernist typeface, Aktiv Grotesk, to replace it. It looks about halfway between Helvetica and Univers:

There are 1 comments on "Helvetica and its discontents":

Posted by: Jennette Mon Nov 7 23:16:42 2011

Love that a Helvetica And Friends rant is all in Gill Sans <3

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