Max Alfons Miedinger was a Swiss designer renowned for creating the world’s most recognized typeface, Helvetica. Despite its immense popularity, very little is known of its creator’s personal history. An obscure typeface designer, he was commissioned by the director of the Haas Type Foundry, Eduard Hoffman, to develop the font. Behind the timeless typeface, here are the following facts:
1. Miedinger professionally specialized in type.
- He spent four years as an apprentice typesetter at a book printing office and ten years in advertising as a typographer for department store chain Globe.
- Miedinger spent nearly a decade as a typeface sales representative and customer counselor at the Haas Type Foundry. He had moved on to freelance when he was approached by Hoffman for the Helvetica project.
2. Helvetica was based on an older popular typeface.
- Miedinger was tasked by Haas Type to rival the instant classic Univers typeface. Modelled on Akzidenz Grotesk typeface, his creation was first named Neue Haas Grotesk. It was well-loved for its unobtrusiveness and clarity even in motion.
- The expensive and old-fashioned nature of the typesetting business made circulation of new designs travel slowly. Developers from Heathrow Airport also wished to modernize Akzidenz Grotesk for new signage, but did not use Mieddinger’s font because they were unaware it existed.
3. Helvetica’s official name is rooted in Switzerland.
- Due to its unsuccessful initial launch, Haas Type’s parent company, Mergenthaler Linotype, rebranded Neue Haas Grotesk to represent Swiss modernity. After four years in obscurity, the typeface was renamed Helvetica™.
- Some believe that Miedinger objected to the original name Helvetia (Latin for Switzerland) because it is the name of a country. Others believe Helvetica (Latin for Swiss) was chosen simply because it was easier to pronounce.
4. Helvetica was embraced out of a post-war desire for modernism.
- Throughout the 50s and 60s, companies favored the International Typographic Style (or Swiss style) for its neutral, simple, and clean aesthetic. Helvetica was considered a perfect product of this movement.
- Companies and organizations that continue to use Helvetica in their brand identity include the United Nations, American Airlines, Nestlé, McDonald’s, and Microsoft.
5. Helvetica has never been replicated perfectly.
- Additional weights were added by different designers from different foundries. This gave Helvetica varying appearances which Linotype has redrawn to maintain consistency. This new family is known as Neue Helvetica.
- Arial was developed as Helvetica’s digital counterpart. Loyal designers prefer Helvetica due to subtle but fundamental differences such as stroke direction.
6. Helvetica is celebrated as a work of art.
- A set of the original lead type is displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. It is recognized as the prestigious museum’s first typeface piece.
- An eponymous documentary film was created to celebrate the font’s 50th anniversary. During the premiere in its native Switzerland, 800 people sang happy birthday around a cake.
Though a number of designers believe Helvetica has become too stale for contemporary design, Max Miedinger has developed a typeface that remains popular 50 years beyond its conception. Its ubiquitous and universal appeal is like great architecture that will last for decades more to come.