The 50-year-old typeface contributes to the branding success of many major tech, auto, and airline companies
While it's hard to make a direct link between a typeface and a company's annual revenues, it's clear that corporations and designers now understand the potential power of a logo. And the logos of many top-selling, enduring brands share a single typeface in common: Helvetica.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the sleek, streamlined font is used by countless corporations, from 3M (MMM) and Microsoft (MSFT) to American Airlines (AMR) and Staples (SPLS). Its simple lines and proportional letters make it easy to read, whether on a tiny package of Post-it notes or on the side of an airplane. For decades, the typeface has proven an effective element of many a corporate branding and marketing strategy.
The font is so influential that New York's Museum of Modern Art recently acquired an original set of Helvetica lead type dating from the late 1950s. It's the first typeface in MoMA's permanent collection, and the subject of a small exhibit, 50 Years of Helvetica, on view through March, 2008.
And a new, reverential documentary film, Helvetica, by Gary Hustwit, is touring universities and international design events. A five-minute excerpt of the movie, featuring everyday scenes of Helvetica in use—shots of, say, a Staples store entrance or a Panasonic logo—is shown in a continuous, silent loop at MoMA. Watching the endless parade of corporate logos is a little like walking through a mall.
Strong Brand Identity
3M began using Helvetica in 1978. The longevity of the typeface's reign there emphasizes the key element it plays within the corporation's brand identity—one that the $22.9 billion company doesn't plan on changing any time soon.
"We don't have a long name—just a numeral and an alphabetical character. So typography becomes very important to our logo," says Karyn Roszak, a manager in the corporate identity and design department of 3M. "Helvetica is straightforward and no-nonsense. Not to mention bold and strong visually."
But Roszak also points out that because Helvetica has been around for a half-century and is readily available in word-processing programs, it's familiar to employees and customers around the globe. That sense of familiarity translates well across the company's divisions—from adhesives to nanotech—and therefore aids internal communications.
"Because of the diversity of the company, we have all the more reason to have a logo that translates well in all markets that we're in," Roszak says. She adds that 3M also uses Helvetica in internal documents, such as brochures on benefits for employees, and that staff members are encouraged to use Helvetica in their e-mail signatures. It's all about remaining consistent with the brand identity, Roszak says.
Microsoft and Panasonic are also faithful to using Helvetica in their logos, while automakers and airlines favor the font, which remains legible even in motion. The letters BMW (BMWG), for example, are set in Helvetica, as are the names of Jeep (DCX) and Toyota (TM) as they appear on vehicles. Both Lufthansa and American Airlines planes are emblazoned with Helvetica type, which can be seen clearly from an airport gate and during takeoff or landing.
Some type experts believe that Helvetica's generic look is the key to its success. Because it's accessible and inoffensive, it's appealing to corporations and consumers alike.
"Every typeface is made to solve some type of problem. They're design tools. Helvetica wasn't designed with anything specific in mind. It was designed to be a jack of all trades," observes Tobias Frere-Jones, director of typography at Hoefler & Frere-Jones in New York, and critic at Yale University School of Art.
"Helvetica is so widely available. It has so many associations, namely to large corporate entities like American Airlines," Frere-Jones adds. "These companies stay with it because of the brand equity they have invested in the typeface. Plus, the font's forms suggest stability."
The Font Gains Foothold
Christian Larsen, curator of the MoMA exhibit on the history of Helvetica, says that the font wasn't a hit when it debuted in 1957, and that it took a decade or so for corporations to catch on to its potential for successful brand-building. The typeface even had to undergo its own bit of rebranding after its original name, Neue Haas Grotesk, failed to catch on.
"It's funny, the typeface wasn't popular when it was first introduced. It was a branding coup by the German parent company, Mergenthaler Linotype, which produced the typeface and decided to market it to the world at large," Larsen says. Once rebranded, "Helvetica gained speed internationally. In the 1970s, the font dominated government logos, after the graphic designer Massimo Vignelli used it for the New York City subway map and signage system. Soon, many brands adopted it, including Sears and Panasonic."
The main reason Helvetica proved popular was because of its sleek, modern style—an attribute desirable to companies wanting to market themselves as producing innovative, efficient products. Letters without serifs, the curvy flourishes on the edges of letters and numbers, tend to look more clean and futuristic, as opposed to more traditional, ornate fonts such as Garamond, which dates back to the 16th century.
But it's not only established corporations with decades of history that use Helvetica as part of their branding strategies. Recently, there's been a wave of Helvetica use by hip, stylish brands.
American Apparel uses the typeface in its ads and logo, and on its storefronts and shopping bags. Japanese home-and-office accessory company Muji, a favorite among design fans around the globe, uses Helvetica for its logo, in bold all-caps. So does Japanese avant-garde fashion label Comme des Garçons. But observers point out that these usages tend to be ironic and subversive, rather than conformist.
"These designers are using Helvetica in a cheeky way. They're aware of major companies' use of the typeface and how the font is allied to the business world," Larsen says. This adds a modern, snarky twist—the graphic design equivalent of a hipster wearing a T-shirt with a pin-striped blazer.
Yet although American Apparel might be using Helvetica to poke fun at corporate culture by pairing it with controversial ads featuring scantily clad young women, the company has seen sales boom. Even when used archly, Helvetica is part of an overall branding strategy that's paying off, at least when measured by sales. The company says its 2006 sales are estimated at $275 million, up 10% from $250 million in 2005.
There are also ways to distinguish a logo while still using the typeface. Microsoft has cut a notch in the first "o" of its brand name, and Staples has bent the "L" to look like a staple.
And it's possible to "change the kerning [amount of space between letters] or use a light or extra-bold font to say different things about a brand while still using Helvetica," says Larsen. "It's almost like a template" for a corporate logo, he adds. "Consumers read the message, not the typeface. All you notice is the brand."
Click here to view examples of how Helvetica has contributed to various brand identities.