Clean typographical solutions using Helvetica, Univers, Gill and Akzidenz are cropping up everywhere. The viewpoint of many designers that use this style is that there is simply nothing better than some nicely kerned sans-serif type arranged and laid out in a clean and simple hierarchy. I agree that it often looks great, and that it often is good design. But can the average person become bored of this style? Will the general public become saturated to sans-serif typographical brands and posters?
Respected typographer Wim Crouwel argues that the simplest sans-serif fonts express neutrality and an anonymous voice. The everyday, all-around-you uses of fonts like Helvetica surely boost this aura of neutrality. This could be seen as an argument for using sans-serif typefaces for transport signage, law enforcement companies and other fair-minded, formal communication. But this poses two questions. Firstly, is Helvetica truly without character? And secondly, don’t these brands want to show more confidence in their heritage and style? You could say a lack of confidence is never a good signal to send out. However, Helvetica does show confidence and character, it shows boldness and clarity, alongside simplicity and a message that it is ‘average’ or ‘standard’.
Whilst these values may sound desirable for many companies and brands, I feel a strength of belief and unique style can be designed for any individual brief. Sometimes using sans-serif solutions, but also with serifs or any other style of typeface or design. Fans of Helvetica argue that the font is everywhere and we don’t even realise it, but maybe it’s everywhere because it’s been the choice font by people who don’t know anything about design. Rare things are valuable and more graphically powerful.
Back in 1972 when Otl Aicher branded the Munich Olympics, the style was extremely bold and daring. But 40 years later as London welcomes the Olympics to it’s city Swiss design is everywhere. Many criticised the London 2012 Olympics branding when it was first unveiled, I’m sure a lot of designers would have been hoping for something more like Otl Aicher’s Munich design. But so many things in the last 10 years have re-branded in London to move towards typographical solutions, one could argue they are losing their impact, the style is becoming less and less bold.
Crucially we must remember that back in 1972, all typographic design was done by hand, letterpress or other painstaking techniques, but today, every Tom, Dick and Harry has a computer and access to millions of easily downloadable fonts. The availability of such a range of fonts could on the other hand increase the impact of sans-serif fonts. A computer is ultimately a tool; it doesn’t make you a good designer.
Today, I believe companies such as Bibliothèque (who are clearly in love with Otl Aicher’s Olympic posters) have gone overboard. They have branded everything from a web design company (Engage) to a Cold War exhibition (at the V&A museum), and 80% of the time, find the solution is the font Akzidenz Grotesk. Also included in their Akzidenz bandwagon: Intersections (a Design Council conference), United Advertising (corporate brand for an advertising agency), Colour Roadshow (Motorola’s 2006 collection), Lantern (an iconic architectural landmark in Southwark), Moving Brands (a branding agency), Electric Storm (a wind-powered art installation), Nick David (a photographer), Wendell Road (a property in West London).
It’s clearly appealing to a client when you tell them you’re giving them a design that is very minimal and all about their work. “The work does the talking, so why distract from it.” Whether you are a photographer or a mobile phone designer, it’s certainly going to massage your ego. If you try and find a correlation in the type of companies they’ve branded it’s clear that they are generally design companies themselves. So is Akzidenz seen as ‘the font to have’ if you’re a designer nowadays?
I agree that it’s a positive, confident way to brand oneself as a creative. It shows a belief and a pride in your work. It is a style that Apple has pulled off better than any company or brand in the last 10 years. The adverts for their iPhone (arguably the greatest consumer gadget of all time) are simply the product, in someone’s hand, in front of a white background. It says “look at our product, it’s great.” It’s so good it sells itself. But as we see more and more of these clean sans-serif typographical brands cropping up, especially in London, there must be some brands trying to let their work do the talking, that ultimately don’t stand out. As they’re not the best, they’re good but not great, and their simplistic sans-serif captioning isn’t going to help them.
“A good brand must differentiate and elevate itself from its competitors by offering its target audience the best brand value on the market.” - CogentDesign.com
I have less of a problem with Akzidenz/Helvetica brands when the name tells the story. ‘Society of Typographic Designers’ says what it is, and with Akzidenz being such a popular font it’s an acceptable choice, but when you have a web design company called ‘Engage’, the font or designer needs to tell the reader a little bit more.
Maybe it’s just a trend, the popular typeface used to be Times and other serif fonts, now Akzidenz and Helvetica have risen to the top – sans-serif fonts. Maybe in 50 years we’ll see a trend in using even more simplified fonts? First the counters will go and then we’ll move towards just shapes.
Akzidenz came first and then Helvetica was a slightly tweaked version, cleaning up ‘imperfections’. But both Berthold and Miedinger are held as legendary typographers, even though the latter only tweaked tiny aesthetics. Maybe someone will tweak Helvetica to make even simpler. We have Helvetica Neue but the main tweak there is in the weights of the font, using a more systematic process to classify the weights, alike Univers.
The simpler fonts put more emphasis on the words, which you could argue is a good thing when looking at brands. If the name speaks for itself then legibility is a positive move. But many would argue Helvetica and co are not trying to be as simple as possible, but instead try to be as legible as possible. Legibility is certainly not something usually found in a counter-less font. However, research shows that sans-serif fonts are not necessarily more legible than serifs, so there must be more to it than that.
It is no wonder that we’ve seen a growing trend in counter-less fonts. They come across very strong, very bold and progressive. Just like Helvetica or Akzidenz did when they were first released. As designers surely we should be forever pining for progression. If we don’t believe another font will come along and take the world by storm like Helvetica then why are typographers designing new fonts every day?
Right now it is very rare for an Akzidenz or Helvetica design to win a graphic design or typography competition. In the few cases that an Akzidenz or Helvetica brand has won an award, it is clear that another strong idea with photography or layout has won over the judges. It’s actually quite funny: a lot of the awards companies or ceremonies have Akzidenz/Helvetica branding, but they wouldn’t give awards for it. But it makes sense: awards ceremonies want to hark back to the prestige of what has come before, exclaiming their history with their brand. Unless it’s something like a ‘lifetime achievement award’, the awards are given to pioneers and the ideas that could change the future.
In conclusion, Swiss sans-serif typography is a style, to be used when appropriate. Some designers like to house their own style and have clients approach them for that specific style. Some like it to be more adaptable and try to avoid being stereotyped.
We won’t know if this is a trend for sure until it’s over, but for now designers and journalists remain fascinated by this subject. Ironically this essay merely contributes to the mass of swirling hype around Swiss sans- serif typography. Most books, essays and articles finish on a question letting the readers decide, but I have an opinion. I believe Helvetica is not the best font and Swiss typography is not the best style; because how do you calculate what is ‘best’? What’s best for a brand or certain design is entirely dependant on the brief, whilst also hugely affected by opinion. Helvetica is simply a tool in a designer’s toolkit, and a good designer has a wide range of tools they can use equally well, designing to a purpose without preconception. As long as designers understand the subtle differences between Helvetica, Gill, Akzidenz and other sans-serif classics, they can be called upon when needed and used well. The variations need to be celebrated; otherwise we’ll get bored.