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Helvetica: Your Biggest Fan Just Turned 80

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Helvetica is one of the world’s most ubiquitous fonts. We read it, stare at it, and pass by it every day. The font is especially prevalent in New York, where the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses the commonly seen, round-lettered type in its maps and signs. This week, Massimo Vignelli, the man credited with introducing the font to America and one of the font's staunchest supporters, turned 80.

“When I came to New York, we brought the type along because it didn’t exist at the time here,” Vignelli said. “People say that I single handedly turned this country into a Helvetica country.” Vignelli has since had a hand in applying Helvetica to everything from signs and maps, to packaging and corporate logos.

“I think we are married to Helvetica,” the Italian-born designer joked. “Of course, there are a lot of terrible things that have been done with the type, but also a lot of very exciting things done with it. Type alone is really not what graphic design is all about.”

For those in design circles, it’s a font that is now so ubiquitous it can be easy to overlook. “People almost don’t know what it is, if you know what I mean,” said David McFadden, chief curator of the Museum of Art and Design. “In a fast paced urban environment, it makes a great deal of sense—a clean, crisp font. It’s a 20th century modernist concept."

Tom Geismar, who has designed logos for Mobil and Chase Bank, helped Vignelli celebrate his birthday earlier this week. “His work is known for being very clear, very bold, very simple,” Geismar said.

Since bringing Helvetica to the U.S. in 1966, Vignelli has used the font widely across his work. Perhaps most famously, Vignelli designed the New York subway map that was in use through much of the 1970s. Although the city replaced the map in 1979, Vignelli's design lives on as an iconic example of transit design.

“Our map was picked up by museums all over the world as the best example of a subway map, and we’re very proud of it, we love it,” Vignelli said. “It’s not a city map. It is a diagram of how to go from point A to point B.”

Later this year, New Yorkers will be treated to a fresh vision of how to get from point A to point B. “We are creating an up-to-date version of the subway map as an app,” Vignelli explained. “And we’ll just keep going.”

Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffmann created the Helvetica font in 1953. 

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