Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Proofs of a careful conception

Helvetica Forever

edited by Lars M&uuml;ller and Victor Malsy<br>Lars M&uuml;ller Publishers, available in English and German, &pound;22.90 / Euros 29.90<br>

Helvetica Forever manages to bring a fresh perspective to the continuing analysis of Helvetica’s enduring popularity by going deep rather than wide. After many years of the design being solely attributed to Max Miedinger, we now know more about the role of Eduard Hoffmann, the long-time director of the Haas Typefoundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, and his brilliant art direction of the typeface.

The bulk of the book, which is edited by Lars Müller and Victor Malsy, is devoted to the story of this collaboration, reproducing correspondence between the two men, and Hoffmann’s painstakingly organised book of proofs and notes (shown in print version of Eye 72). Hoffmann’s insistence that the typeface be spaced very tightly, by 1950s standards, pioneered a look that would dominate advertising and display typography until the mid-1980s.

The book also details Hoffmann’s efforts to get first the Swiss graphic design elite, then the German foundry D. Stempel to embrace the typeface, showing his finesse in managing the complex relationship between Haas, Stempel and Linotype (which partly controlled both the smaller foundries and later owned them outright). He understood that Linotype’s dominance in machine typesetting would be the key to widespread – even global – use of Helvetica, but knew it would be reluctant to commit to a new sans serif in 1957. This sounds almost unimaginable today, when the closest thing to a guaranteed bestseller is a large sans serif family.

The book’s only real weak spot is a section showing examples of Helvetica in use over the decades, with a gaping hole between 1970 and 1988, and uneven choices of work. Far more successful as supplements to the main story are a short but amusing photo essay giving the reader some aesthetic context of 1950s Europe; what appears to be a fairly complete collection of type specimens from Helvetica’s early years (shown in print version of Eye 72); and a detailed analysis of the Grotesque faces that preceded and followed Helvetica.

Fifty years on, it is good to know that Helvetica’s popularity was not an accident and that the typeface went through endless revisions. Helvetica Forever is a detailed document of the intersection of hard work and luck found in any successful typeface, and finally recognises Hoffmann as the driving force behind this typeface in particular.

[You can buy the illustrated, printed edition of Eye 72 online by clicking the ‘buyEye72’ link in the right-hand column.]