The Helvetica killer

Bruno Maag is so enraged by Helvetica that he has designed a typeface aimed specifically at wiping it off the face of the planet. He explains his hatred in the latest of SEA’s Naturalis booklets

Helvetica may be the world’s most popular typeface but one man is having none of it. Type designer Bruno Maag of Dalton Maag, views Helvetica’s popularity with a mixture of bemusement and irritation. So he has decided to do something about it. With the Dalton Maag team, he has created Aktiv Grotesk, a typeface designed to provide an alternative (and, he hopes, improvement) to Helvetica.

Maag discussed the project and his feelings about Helvetica in a conversation with CR editor Patrick Burgoyne which is published in Naturalis x 7, the latest of GF Smith‘s promotional booklets for its Naturalis paper range, designed by SEA and set in Aktiv Grotesk (shown here). Here is what he had to say:

Patrick Burgoyne: Bruno, where does your deep-seated hatred of Helvetica come from? Isn’t hating Helvetica pointless? It’s like air or vanilla ice cream, it’s just there…

Bruno Maag: That’s the point, it is vanilla ice cream. In my whole career in typography, starting with my apprenticeship, I have never used Helvetica. Being a Swiss typographer, it’s always been Univers. Even in my apprenticeship we didn’t have Helvetica in the printshop. Then I went to Basel school of design and of course in Weingart’s workshop it was Univers, never Helvetica. Then I come to England and there’s all these designers using Helvetica! The Macintosh had just come out and Helvetica was on every single machine. Everyone was so fascinated with it … I never understood that.

PB: Do you think it was an outsider’s impression of the Swiss style? Almost in the way that a tourist forms an idea of a country that is different from reality?

BM: I think – that’s describing it quite nicely. My Swiss colleagues always thought of Univers as Swiss typography. It was the American advertisers of the 60s that we associated Helvetica with.

PB: But wasn’t its popularity in America due to the influence of European émigrés?

BM: The thing is that Univers was released in 1956 by Deberny & Peignot, a small French foundry. Helvetica was released a year later with the full might of the Linotype marketing machine behind it. Linotype stuck it on every single typesetting machine they could and took it round the market, particularly around the New York advertising scene. And there was little Deberny & Peignot with no marketing budget. It’s a fluke of marketing that Helvetica now is this incredibly popular typeface.

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.

And there are a lot of things wrong in the design of Helvetica once you start going in to the detail. I can appreciate why a lot of designers like Helvetica compared to Univers – Univers has a starkness about it, it’s cold. Maybe because of the antique-ness of Helvetica it has a certain charm that Univers lacks and at the same time has this neutrality, so I can see why people go for it, but if you start analysing it and going into the nitty gritty it is quite a horrendous font. It’s quite poorly crafted and has become completely overused. People go on about Arial and how awful it is, and Comic Sans, what an atrocity that is, why not the same about Helvetica? It’s often used wrongly too.

PB: How can you use it wrongly?

BM: I’ve seen it in books. It has no place there, it has no place in body copy, it is not a hardcore reading font. Being a grotesk font, inherently, it is not very legible. Going back to Vignelli and using it on the New York Subway – that goes against every principle of legibiltiy. For signage you want to have something condensed so that you can have a higher letter count and you want to have character forms that are not ambiguous. Some of the character forms in Helvetica are very ambiguous because they are so uniform. In the movie, [Erik] Spiekermann says it very well, that they are like soldiers on parade and that is detrimental to legibility. People just use Helvetica because they have heard of it, it’s on everyone’s computer and everyone else uses it.

PB: Is it almost a non-choice to use it?

BM: It’s very much like that, a bit like Julia Roberts – pretty enough but…

PB: So all this combines to deeply upset you about it?

BM: Yes and a certain amount of commercial jealousy! But I do find it an inferior typeface. I would choose Univers every time – it’s crafted better, the proportions are better, it is a modern typeface that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t which Helvetica does. What upsets me even more is the ignorance that people have in using it. Once I had a long debate with Hamish Muir on a round table discussion at the RCA. He said ‘I just use Helvetica for everything’. We were almost at each other’s throats over that. I said ‘How can you?’ He said ‘I’ve always used it, I’ve set up my core kerning pairs…’ Well, that’s not an argument! You use a typeface that is appropriate to the job. You don’t have to have 5000 fonts on your machine but you use the one that speaks in the right voice, that conveys the right functionality for the job.

PB: A lot of designers feel uncomfortable with showing expressing emotion in their work. Particularly in the UK there is this concensus over what ‘good’ design is –this watered down Swiss style, let’s not frighten anyone, let’s just tidy it all up. Keep it clean. Helvetica appeals to that…

BM: You’re right, it does fit into that grid thinking. A lot of graphic designers are really scared of the organic shape, the thing they can’t control – just let it go. And with Helvetica, because everyone else uses it you can justify it to your client.

PB: So let’s talk about Aktiv, Dalton Maag’s new ‘Helvetica killer’. Can you design a typeface in opposition to something? Is that what you set out to do or were you just trying to create as good a grotesk as you could for general use?

BM: It was two-pronged really. One was the fact that we were looking at our font library and felt that we were missing a pure grotesk in a Univers style, purely as a commercial entity. It has been at the back of our minds to do this for the last three or four years now. We wanted to have a grotesk font positioned somewhere between Helvetica and Univers – not as icy cold as Univers but devoid of all the quirks of Helvetica. To have a font that is beautifully crafted, spaced well, with not a chink in a curve or anything – perfectly drawn but hopefully with a bit of personality. We wanted to create something that could be used in a corporate environment but that has that bit of warmth that Univers doesn’t have.

Clearly, because we are competing aganst Univers, Akzidenz and Helvetica there are a lot of close similarities. The x height is fractionally higher than Helvetica but the rounds have a little bit of squareness about them that Helvetica’s don’t have. The differences are really subtle but give it just that bit of personality.

PB: Do you always need those idiosyncracies in typefaces?

BM: You do, otherwise what’s the point? Why use this or that? When people choose a typeface it’s not a rational decision, it’s completely emotional. They home in on details and say ‘I love that, that’s why I’m going to use it’. But then they want a rational explanation to tell their client. We’re hoping with this that people will react positively to it and that it can do everything that Helvetica isn’t doing … and in the process I get very very rich!

PB: So success for Aktiv would be to see Helvetica driven from the face of the earth?

BM: Yes! When I do lectures I always have a little rant about Helvetica and at the end I say if everyone in the world used Univers instead from now on I’d happily retire, but it ain’t going to happen.

PB: When this is out can you let Helvetica go? Have you exorcised the demon?

BM: Yes, it’s catharsis. It’s done now.

There will be a launch party for Naturalis x 7 at the SEA Gallery on Tuesady July 13. The booklet was printed by Fulmar Colour using a mixture of Hexachrome and special inks on Naturalis Smooth Absolute White paper. Designed by SEA Design and set in Aktiv Grotesk.

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