Helvetica is, by all accounts, a typographic celebrity. But how did it get there…and why didn’t Univers get the spotlight instead?
Speculative historical thinking, or counterfactual history, whether by historians or novelists, tries to imagine what might have happened if the outcome of a key moment in the past had been different. It has usually been applied to momentous events such as the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, the American Civil War, the two World Wars or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But suppose we apply such thinking to something more mundane: the popularity of a typeface. Like Helvetica and Univers…for example.
In 1957 three typefaces, all designed in the same neo-grotesque manner, were released: Neue Haas Grotesk by Eduard Hoffmann and Max Miedinger, Univers by Adrian Frutiger, and Folio by Konrad F. Bauer and Walter Baum. The first of them, eventually under the name Helvetica, emerged as the most popular.
But contrary to the implications of the eponymous 2007 movie by Gary Hustwit, this success was neither immediate nor pre-ordained. There were a handful of moments in Helvetica’s history that have proved to be crucial.
Neue Haas Grotesk was developed by the Haas foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, to counteract the preference of the leading modernist Swiss designers of the postwar period for Akzidenz Grotesk—a typeface sold by H. Berthold AG, a German type foundry. This was both a matter of sales and national pride… but the attempt failed. The great majority of Swiss designers continued to use Akzidenz Grotesk (commonly known as AG).
Akzidenz Grotesk in a Volkswagen Ad (1961) | Source
The notable exception was the small coterie led by Emil Ruder, a teacher at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel, who was devoted to Univers as the best—and only—typeface to use. 
1961 Typografische Monatsblätter design by Emil Ruder | Typeface: Univers
Given this domestic reception, how did Neue Haas Grotesk, under the name Helvetica, become the celebrity typeface of today? Why did it triumph over Univers?
The first key moment happened years before Neue Haas Grotesk was even conceived.
In 1927 the German foundry D. Stempel GmbH acquired a partial interest in the Haas Type Foundry. This is one of two reasons that Eduard Hoffmann turned to Stempel in 1959 to broaden the sales of his new sans serif. More importantly, Stempel made the first matrices for Mergenthaler-Setzmaschinen-Fabrik GmbH (the German Linotype company)  in 1900 and subsequently became half-owned by the latter. It was this relationship that Hoffmann had in mind, because adapting Neue Haas Grotesk for the linotype was the best way to spread the design.
Neue Haas Grotesk (as Helvetica) in a Coca-Cola Ad (1969–74) | Source
The arrangement between Haas and Stempel had other consequences besides the adaptation of Neue Haas Grotesk for composing machines. It also led to the fateful—and ultimately brilliant—decision to jettison the dull “Neue Haas Grotesk” name in favor of one with more international appeal. To capitalize on the popularity of “Swiss Design,” Stempel’s manager Heinz Eul suggested “Helvetia,” the Latin name for Switzerland. Hoffmann nixed it and countered with “Helvetica.”
The subtle addition of the ‘c’ not only avoided a possible trademark fight with a Swiss sewing machine manufacturer, but it made for a more pronounceable and hence memorable name for non-German (and non-Latin) speakers.
What if the financial entanglement among Haas, Stempel and German Linotype had not existed? If a German foundry other than Stempel had owned part of Haas, the deal with German Linotype may never have happened. Both Bauer and Berthold, viewing Neue Haas Grotesk as a rival to their own types Folio and Akzidenz Grotesk, respectively, would not have supported a license.
Moreover, Neue Haas Grotesk would never have been renamed Helvetica. Univers was intrinsically superior to Helvetica. It had a much larger family at the outset, with 21 members compared to four in 1960. More importantly, its family was logically designed with consistent weights and widths, something that Helvetica never achieved until its redesign as Neue Helvetica in 1982. Univers’ characters, stripped of “unnecessary” elements such as the beard on ‘G’ or the curve on the tail of ‘y,’ were also more rationally designed. It had the powerful support of Ruder, who wrote about it in Typographische Monatsblätter (TM), both upon its release and again in 1961.
He also promoted the type through the design of all 12 covers of the magazine in 1961, each design showcasing Univers’ evenly spaced weights and widths. Helvetica had no equally powerful advocate among Swiss designers. Hoffmann himself had to write the article on its behalf that appeared in TM 1961:4.
Univers had one other thing in its favor. It had been designed as a foundry type for the French foundry Deberny & Peignot and as a film type for the Lumitype machine. But photocomposition was not yet widely accepted in 1957, and the way to broader acceptance, as Hoffmann knew, was via adoption by one of the large composing-machine companies.
Because of the close personal friendship of Charles Peignot and John Dreyfus, the typographical adviser at the Monotype Corporation, Univers was converted—with suboptimal results in Frutiger’s view—to the monotype machine in 1961.
There was apparently an opportunity in the early 1960s—exactly when is not clear—for Univers to become a linotype face. According to Mike Parker, assistant to Jackson Burke at Mergenthaler Linotype from 1959 to 1963, and then director of Typographic Development at the company, he asked Adrian Frutiger for permission to convert Univers to the linotype machine, but under one condition: that Frutiger allow Mergenthaler to reduce the slope of the italic members of the family from 16 degrees to 12.
This was necessary to allow Univers to be duplexed—putting both the italic and roman on a single matrix. Frutiger said no, and thus Univers was not added to the Linotype library until it was adapted for Linofilm in 1969, ironically with the abhorred 12-degree slope. By then, it was playing second fiddle to Helvetica. Years later, Frutiger complained that, “At Linotype, Univers was for a long time a necessary evil, an orphan that nobody really cared for. … Helvetica, however, was preened and constantly improved, so becoming a top successful product.”
Some of the bitterness in this statement surely comes from the fact that the development of Neue Helvetica in 1983 ironically followed the blueprint Frutiger had established for Univers in 1957, right down to the numbering of each member of the family.
What if Frutiger had agreed to the alteration of Univers italic in the early 1960s? Hoffmann had not balked at the slight changes needed to fit Helvetica to the German linotype machine in 1960. Further adjustments were necessary to make it work with English and American linotype machines, something that was not completed until early 1965. Thus, there was a small window in which Univers could have been made available to English and American designers before Helvetica was. And thus it, instead of Helvetica, could have become the crown prince at the Linotype company.
Helvetica did not become widely used in the United States until 1968. Its heyday was the 1970s, the era of corporate identity and signage programs. Helvetica was everywhere, from the logos of Fortune 500 companies to airports to the National Park Service. Noting this, Leslie Savan wrote “This Typeface is Changing Your Life” for The Village Voice in 1976. That was the year that Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak released the Apple I personal computer. It was also the bicentennial of the United States.
In 1970 Aaron Burns, Ed Rondthaler and Herb Lubalin founded the now-legendary International Typeface Corporation to produce typefaces for photocomposition from a wide range of manufacturers. ITC typefaces such as ITC Cheltenham (1975), ITC Souvenir (1971) and ITC Avant Garde Gothic (1970) were marked, like Helvetica, by a tall x-height. But that was all they had in common. Yet while Helvetica was becoming ubiquitous, ITC typefaces were running rampant, their popularity bolstered by the classic Lubalin-designed type publication U&lc.
Helvetica’s current ubiquity is not due to its widespread adoption by Modernist-inclined graphic designers in the 1970s but rather by its availability as a free font on personal computers.
These three things—Helvetica, ITC and Steve Jobs—all collided in 1984, the year that the first Macintosh computer, replete with typefaces, was released. The Macintosh core font set was a combination of the then-most popular typefaces and typefaces that filled out a stylistic and functional range, with the latter being chosen by the dominant type manufacturers at that time. Thus, there were four typefaces (Helvetica, New Century Schoolbook, Palatino and Times) from Linotype and four typefaces from the International Typeface Corporation (ITC Avant Garde Gothic, ITC Bookman, ITC Zapf Chancery and ITC Zapf Dingbats). In addition, there was Courier from IBM and Symbol from Apple itself.*
Linotype’s position of power refl ected the collapse of the metal type foundries in the 1960s and 1970s. Through a series of major acquisitions it came to own the libraries of Stempel, Klingspor, Genzsch & Heyse, Weber, Haas, Deberny & Peignot, Fonderie Olive and Nebiolo, and it has licensed key typefaces from Bauer.
Helvetica’s current ubiquity is not due to its widespread adoption by Modernist-inclined graphic designers in the 1970s but rather by its availability as a free font on personal computers. Its inclusion in the first Macintosh core font set was followed by its inclusion in PC core fonts prior to Windows 3.1.
What if Steve Jobs had gone to the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule (school) in Basel—as a number of Americans did in the 1970s—instead of Reed College? What and who would have influenced his choice of typefaces for the Macintosh? If Jobs had been in Basel he would have come under the influence either of Ruder’s followers (Ruder had died in 1970) and/or Wolfgang Weingart, Ruder’s successor as typography instructor. But along with the strong views on type held by those at the Basel school itself, he may have come under the broader sway of several designers working in a “Modernist classical” style: the elderly Jan Tschichold, the book designer Jost Hochuli, the book designer and type critic Max Cafl isch, and the type designer Hans Eduard Meier. Furthermore, in Switzerland neither Helvetica nor ITC typefaces would have loomed as large as they did during that decade in the United States.
Although the idea of Steve Jobs studying type in Basel seems far-fetched, it still makes for a fascinating case of “what if?” Based on the suppositions above, there are eight typefaces that, in conjunction with Courier and Symbol, might have become the Macintosh core font set: Bauer Bodoni, Futura and Univers from Linotype; Bembo and Gill Sans from Monotype; Sabon and Times from both Linotype and Monotype; and Akzidenz Grotesk from Berthold. This set of four serif and four sans serif typefaces not only reflects the typographic tastes of Switzerland in the 1970s, but is also better balanced stylistically than the actual set. The serif faces cover the Aldine, French Old Style, Dutch Old Style and Neoclassical categories while the sans serif faces include two grotesques (gothics), a geometric sans and a humanist sans.
This is a plausible scenario. Akzidenz Grotesk had renewed popularity due to its embrace by Weingart and his students. Univers continued to be the preferred typeface of Ruder’s former students. Monotype had a bigger presence than ITC in Switzerland in the 1970s due to the country’s laggardly adoption of phototype. The “Modernist classical” designers often used Bembo, Sabon, Times Roman and Gill Sans while the Modernists often used Monotype Grotesque as a text companion to Akzidenz Grotesque.
While inclusion in the core fonts of personal computers was instrumental in spreading Helvetica among the masses, it does not account for the wide awareness of the typeface. That is due to the media, to the power of film and journalism.
still from Helvetica (2007 film)
Helvetica Forever (2007 German, 2009 English), the birthday tribute published by Lars Müller Verlag, made barely a ripple among the general populace. But Helvetica (2007), the film by Gary Hustwit, was another story. Starring Massimo Vignelli, Michael Bierut, Paula Scher and Erik Spiekermann, among many, it was a blockbuster for a documentary film. It reached beyond the design community, aided not only by positive reviews but by a flood of human-interest stories in newspapers and online. Helvetica became the one—and only—typeface that the average person could name. It went from ubiquity to celebrity.
What if Hustwit had chosen another typeface to profile? There are several other typefaces that could have made a good, though different, documentary. Depending on the perspective he desired, Hustwit could have chosen the equally ubiquitous Times Roman or Arial, the widely mocked—and widely available—Comic Sans, or Univers, the object of almost fetishistic worship among a small group of designers.
But there is a good reason that he settled on Helvetica. Of these and other various options, only Helvetica is both embraced by the design profession and available to the general populace as a free font. It is thus found in both high and low design. In contrast, Arial and Comic Sans are shunned by professional designers while Univers is unknown to laymen.
What should be clear from these four counterfactual scenarios is that none of them alone can account for Helvetica’s current celebrity status. It is the concatenation of events over the past halfcentury that has been responsible. Like dominoes, each of those pivotal events had an impact on the following one. And thus, the only way that another typeface such as Univers would have attained the wide recognition of Helvetica is if a similar series of magic moments had occurred for it. Such moments would have followed a different trajectory. For instance, Univers may have become more popular among American designers than Helvetica if a student of Emil Ruder, rather than Massimo Vignelli, had been invited to be a partner at Unimark in 1965. Thus, the counterfactual history game can be played many ways. Although it is mere speculation in the end, it remains an enjoyable exercise, one that stresses the importance of the idiosyncratic circumstances of time and place over intrinsic characteristics. Helvetica forever? Maybe. Maybe not.
This piece was from Print’s Spring 2016 Issue.
*Editor’s Note — Print has received the following note of correction from American type historian Chuck Bigelow regarding Macintosh fonts:
The fonts on the Macintosh in 1984 were all bitmap fonts designed by Susan Kare at Apple. She made one set of sizes for screen @ 72 dpi and another set, with twice the screen resolution, for dot-matrix printers @ 144 dpi.
These included Chicago, New York, Geneva, Monaco, San Francisco, and a few others, but not the later PostScript “core set” of Helvetica, Times, Courier,
Symbol, which were not released until the PostScript LaserWriter came out in 1985. Additional faces, including Palatino, New Century Schoolbook. Bookman, Avant Garde Gothic, Zapf Chancery, and Zapf Dingbats came out with the LaserWriter Plus in 1986.
The Laserwriter fonts were licensed by the respective mfgrs to Adobe, which produced them in PostScript format and then licensed them to Apple along with PostScript etc. To my recollection, Adobe, not Apple developed the “Symbol” font, based somewhat on Times. Courier was never trademarked by IBM, so Adobe created a “stroke-based” version of it (to reduce file size) and used the name without license from IBM.
Later, with its TrueType release in 1991, Apple licensed the core set fonts from the respective mfgrs, although Courier was once again made without IBM. For Apple’s 1991 TrueType release, Kris Holmes and I designed TT versions of Chicago, Geneva, New York, and Monaco. We told the story of the development in “Notes on Apple 4 Fonts.”
The Chicago TT version is essentially identical to the bitmap version, except for a zero with slash requested by Apple and additional characters. The other fonts diverge from the bitmap shapes to a considerable degree, as we explain in “Notes.”
1. Karl Gerstner, in his Designing Programmes (1964) astutely critiqued the shortcomings of Akzidenz Grotesk, and then, instead of embracing Univers as a more consistent and logical alternative, condemned it as well. In his work he stuck with AG while developing Programm (1967), his idea of the perfect grotesque typeface.
2. German Linotype should not be confused with Linotype & Machinery Ltd. in London (English Linotype) or Mergenthaler Linotype in the U.S. Although Mergenthaler owned shares in the other two companies and all three often shared designs, they operated independently.