Helvetica is one of the most popular fonts in the world. It’s been around since 1957, but gained modern popularity due to use by major brands like Apple, Jeep and more. Helvetica is a great font for all kinds of applications. Anyone in design is likely already familiar with it, but may not know its history, top uses and typographic features.
Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann in 1957 at the Swiss Haas type foundry. It was originally called “Neue Haas Grotesk” but the name was later changed to a version of the Latin word “Helvetia”, meaning “Switzerland”.
In 1961, Neue Haas Grotesk was acquired by the Linotype Company, which is when its name was changed. Today, it is one in a family of 36 similar typefaces, all available in over 30 different languages.
Helvetica is a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface. The realist forms of neo-grotesque design gained popularity in the post-WWII era when “Neue Haas Grotesk” was originally released. At the time, people were looking to the future and wanted designs that were new, fresh and clean.
In the first half of the 20th century, typefaces were often more decorative and tended to be serif fonts. Helvetica’s simplicity marks it as a font for a new age. Early on, it could have easily gone the way of many other typefaces and become hidden in obscurity.
Luckily, Linotype eventually licensed the font to Xerox and later Adobe and Apple. This set the font up for use in digital printing, which over the years would take the world by storm.
Apple and Helvetica
Apple is one of the most iconic brands to use Helvetica. It was not only part of Apple’s advertising and marketing materials for years, but also came as the default font on many of Apple’s devices and apps. Specifically, Apple used the Helvetica Neue font frequently, which is a slightly rounded, more modern typeface in the Helvetica font family.
The huge popularity of Apple electronics is part of why Helvetica remains so popular today. It made headlines in 2015 when Apple announced it would be leaving Helvetica behind as its main font and switching to San Francisco instead.
The close association with Apple may be part of why Helvetica is seen as a more modern, “artsy” or sleek font compared to the similar Arial typeface. Arial is the default font on many Microsoft and Windows devices and apps, but tends to have a more “bland” or boring reputation among everyday users. Both fonts are frequently used in professional design, branding and marketing, though, and remain extremely popular.
What is the Tone of Helvetica?
Anytime you are trying to choose a font, one of the main considerations is how the font “feels”. What emotions or tone does it convey? Does it seem professional, casual, fun, futuristic?
Helvetica is an interesting font to examine here. It’s highly versatile compared to many other fonts, especially when you include the entire font family. It’s clean and neutral enough to be professional, yet sleek and modern enough for more relaxed applications. It can even be futuristic, especially in a minimalist setting.
The tone of this font really comes down to what typeface you use in this font family. While all the forms of Helvetica are somewhat similar, they can vary significantly in the mood or connotation they convey.
For example, the Pro Light Condensed form of Helvetica has a narrow, tall shape that is well-suited for professional materials. It is also good for applications where you want a sleek, neutral, yet somewhat modern font.
In contrast, the Pro Rounded Bold form is much more fun and relaxed. The combination of bold and round gives the letter a welcoming, yet knowledgeable tone. This is the kind of typeface that would look right at home on an Apple product.
For something completely neutral, opt for Helvetica Pro Lite, Pro Roman or Pro Textbook Roman. The bolded forms of all of these fonts are generally tone-neutral, as well. The now-famous Neue Helvetica, designed by Linotype in 1983, is also a great option for nearly any application.
Popular Uses for Helvetica
Helvetica is a great choice for many types of designs. The different typefaces in this font family are easy to find among the logos and brand materials of companies all over the world. It might be a simple font, but it’s surprisingly versatile.
For example, the Jeep logo is in the Helvetica Bold font. The Jeep logo certainly stands out, but several other notable brands use the exact same font, including CBS, American Airlines, CVS Pharmacy, North Face, Target and Staples.
Looking at the logos of all these brands, most designers would say each clearly has a unique identity. Yet, they all use the same exact typeface. This speaks to the chameleon nature of Helvetica in professional design. It’s highly adaptable to a huge range of brand identities. It’s also neutral enough that, ironically, it isn’t noticeable that so many brands use the same font.
With that said, there are some trends in which brands use which forms of Helvetica. For instance, 3M, AccuWeather, Panasonic and LG all use Helvetica Black. These companies all have a more professional, businesslike brand with ties to science and technology niches.
In contrast, take a look at how Nestle uses Helvetica Rounded Bold in its logo. Nestle makes food, so their branding should be inviting, comforting and friendly. Helvetica is easy to read and recognize at a glance, but the Rounded Bold version of it adds that welcoming air that’s perfect for Nestle’s brand.
Overall, popular uses for the Helvetica font family include anything that needs to balance high readability with a unique but subtle tone. This highly versatile font family can go great with nearly any brand if you choose the right typeface.
Benefits of Helvetica
Why should designers consider using the Helvetica font family? There are a few great reasons, including the shapes of the letters themselves, the ease of use and Helvetica’s versatility.
Clear and Easy to Read
Every designer knows it’s crucial for a brand’s logo to be both unique and easy to recognize. A font that’s difficult to read can hurt a logo’s success if it’s not designed carefully. Helvetica is a very clear, readable font, even at a distance.
This is why it’s so popular for logos all over the world. It suits a wide range of niches, but it’s also easy to read at a glance. Helvetica can look minimalist, as with the Crate&Barrel logo, or futuristic, as with the Atomic Skis logo. You can dress it up or dress it down. No matter how you use it, Helvetica will still be easy to read.
Great for Beginner Designers
The Helvetica font face can be a great choice for beginners in design thanks to its ease of use. It’s recognizable, it’s a staple of the design world, it’s readily available and it’s easy to adapt to virtually any market or theme. Helvetica’s more basic forms are also easy to pair with other fonts for things like body text or marketing materials.
Helvetica is also very easy to access since it comes standard on Apple devices and Apple-brand apps like Pages. This makes it a great starting point for anyone who is completely new to graphic design and still exploring different fonts.
Looks Great On-Screen and On Print
Some fonts simply don’t translate well between print and screen. A font might look good on your computer screen but end up being awkward on paper, or vice versa. This isn’t the case with Helvetica.
Most typefaces in this font family look great on any platform. Just take a look at Apple’s broad use of Helvetica across its website, packaging, devices, app interfaces and more.
What Fonts Pair Well With Helvetica?
Helvetica tends to play well with most other fonts since it’s so neutral. There are a few rules of thumb and a few good combos worth checking out, though.
As always, it’s often a good idea to pair a san serif header font, such as a bold typeface of Helvetica, with a serif body copy font. The tone you want matters when choosing your serif companion for this font.
For instance, something like Crimson Text Normal might go well with the modern but neutral tone of Helvetica Neue Bold. If you wanted a more fun, relaxed tone, you might pair Helvetica Rounded Bold with a serif font like Source Serif Pro or Lora.
As a general rule, it is usually best not to pair this font with another sans serif font. For example, try making a design with both Helvetica and Arial. They will clash since the shapes are somewhat similar but evoke completely different tones.
Helvetica: Modern, Readable, Versatile
The Helvetica font family is a great choice for all kinds of designs, from basic reading materials to iconic brand logos and everything in between. It’s a flexible font that can suit many different tastes, tones and niches with ease, particularly if you are choosing from the entire font family.
Overall, it’s hard to go wrong with Helvetica. It’s one of the world’s most popular fonts for a good reason and has long-since earned its evergreen status in the design world.
The Font Series Guide: Introduction
Chapter 1: 15 Google Fonts You Should Be Using
Chapter 2: Times New Roman
Chapter 3: Roboto
Chapter 4: Georgia
Chapter 5: Verdana
Chapter 6: Helvetica
Chapter 7: Comic Sans
Chapter 8: Didot
Chapter 9: Arial
Chapter 10: Tahoma
Chapter 11: Garamond
Chapter 12: Century Gothic
Chapter 13: Brody
Chapter 14: Bromello
Chapter 15: Savoy
Chapter 16: Athene
Chapter 17: Calibri
Chapter 18: Proxima Nova
Chapter 19: Anders
Chapter 20: Monthoers
Chapter 21: Gotham
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.