Every seasoned New Yorker and every tourist riding on the subway for the first time knows how important clear signage is to help riders find their way to the right train heading the right direction. On today’s show graphic designer and typographer Paul Shaw explains how the typeface Helvetica was used to impose order over the chaos of the subway signage. Listen to that interview here.
Here’s a review of Paul Shaw’s book in The New Yorker’s The Book Bench blog.
History of Helvetica
The typeface Helvetica was developed by Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland. Helvetica’s name is derived from the Latin name for Switzerlant, Helvetia. In 1961 Linotype started marketing the font internationally. Swiss design and sleek, sans serif typefaces were popular at the time, and because Helvetica is a scalable font that can be resized without distorting its proportions, it soon appeared in corporate logos and on transportation signage—In 1966 Vignelli Associates designed the New York Subway sign system using Helvetica (more about that here). When Apple included Helvetica on Macintosh computers in 1984, the font became even more common and is now one of the most popular typefaces of all time.
There’s also a documentary about Helvetica, directed by Gary Hustwit. Find out more about “Helvetica” the film, and download the film here.
More on Typography
We did a Please Explain on typography in 2009, and typographer Jonathan Hoefler, type designer and president of Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Steven Heller, co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, explained how typefaces are designed, trademarked, and the ways type faces can communicate with just their shape. Listen to that interview here.