HomeArticlesThe untold story behind your favorite font

The untold story behind your favorite font

Uncovering Helvetica and Times New Roman

Most of human communication is nonverbal. Research suggests that what we say makes up for as little as 7 percent of verbal communication. The rest is body language and tone of voice.

If this is the case, then fonts are the body language and tone of voice of written language.

Whether you are a font-nerd who spends hours looking for just the right typeface or couldn’t care less about the difference between Helvetica and Arial: Everyone who works in design knows that fonts communicate to us in powerful ways, influencing our perceptions, emotions and behavior. Typography yields immense power, precisely because most people aren’t conscious of its effects.

A font can completely transform the meaning of a word. It can give it a backstory. It can give it a personality…Typography IS storytelling – (Sarah Hyndman)

But have you ever wondered about the story behind the fonts we see every day? Let’s have a look behind the scenes of two of the most famous fonts of all time: Helvetica and Times New Roman

HELVETICA

Helvetica does not need an introduction. It is one of the most popular fonts of all time. The list of brand-logos in Helvetica reads like a Who is Who of the rich and famous: BMW, Lufthansa, Toyota, American Apparel, Microsoft, Whatsapp…The list goes on.

It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica – Erik Spiekermann

It’s sleek, no-nonsense and easy-to-read look has made it a staple in our visual culture:

Helvetica Font
Helvetica

We frequently find it in artworks and on movie posters. It is popular in airports and other transportation systems such as the New York City Subway Network.  Helvetica is so omnipresent that it has become invisible. And yet there are few typefaces that create such strong negative reactions from designers: Laura Sher has gone as far as calling it “the typeface of the Vietnam war” because it was used in the branding of big corporations that financially supported the conflict. “The visual language of big corporations…at that time was persuasively Helvetica. They looked fascistic to me. All my messy room adolescent rebellion was coming back at me in the form of Helvetica and I had to overthrow it”.

Be that as it may: Helvetica is here to stay. It continues to have a wide fanbase in the design-world and beyond. It is not only used for branding but has become a brand in its own right. It has even received its own exhibition in honor of its 50th birthday and Gary Hustwit has created an award-winning documentary film about the font we love to hate. Whether we like it or not: Helvetica is everywhere.  

But what is the story behind its creation?  

Thank Fuck Helvetica
Thank Fuck For Helvetica – Graham Smith (flickr)

The man behind the famous typeface is Max Miedinger, a Swizz designer born in 1910. We know very little about his life and his passions.

Miedinger’s life seems to have been as unexciting as his font. His life path shows him to be risk-averse, as he repeatedly chooses job security over his dream of being a designer. And yet he ends up at the right place at just the right moment:

As a young child he dreams of becoming an artist, but his father tells him to “learn a proper job first”. Instead of following his dream the dutiful son starts working as a typesetter for a publishing brand. But four years of typesetting only confirm what he already knows:

“I want to design instead of fumbling together columns on galleys until the end of my days.”

He enrolls in evening classes at the art school in Zürich and starts working as a typographer and graphic designer for a chain of department stores. Following the end of World War II Miedinger gives up on his design dreams: He relocates to Basel and spends the following ten years working as a salesman at the Haas’sche Schriftgießerei.  

Little does he know that this time spent away from working as a designer has put him into contact with the person who will commission him to design one of the most iconic fonts of the 20th century.

In 1956 the postwar economic boom is in full swing. Miedinger finally has the courage (and contacts) to quit his job, move back to Zürich and start working as a freelance graphic designer.

In the same year his former boss, the manager of Haas’sche Schriftgießerei Eduard Hoffmann, decides to introduce a new Sans Serif typeface to the European market and asks him to design it. Max Miedinger is the perfect person for the job. As a former employee he knows the company and its customers inside out.

The typeface that results is christened Neue Haas Grotesk and launched in 1957. It enters the market at just the right time: The economy is booming and the Swiss Design movement, also known as International Typographic Style is starting to take off. This iconic postwar movement is based on the idea that design should be as invisible as possible. The neutral, down-to earth and modern look of Neue Haas Grotesk quickly becomes a popular choice among designers. In 1960 the font is renamed so as to make it more attractive to international customers:

The birth of Helvetica is complete.

As the Swiss Design movement conquers the world, Helvetica spreads like wildfire. Its letters travel through Europe and move over the Atlantic. They silently slip into corporate identities, street signs, magazines, posters, artworks and hearts all over the world.

And yet the personality of the man behind it remains a mystery.

But then:

Maybe only a man as colorless and meticulous as Miedinger could design the font that has come to represent both corporate blandness and modernist beauty.

While Helvetica has been criticized for being unimaginative, its influence on design is beyond dispute. Love it or hate it: Helvetica is not going anywhere.

If you can’t get enough of Helvetica, you can…

Buy Helvetica here: Buy Helvetica

Watch a movie about it:  Helvetica movie

Read about it: Helvetica book

Wear it: Helvetica T-shirt

Drink your morning coffee out of it: Helvetica mug

Design a magazine with it: Helvetica Magazine indesign template

Helvetica Magazine Template
Helvetica Magazine Template
Helvetica Magazine Templates
Helvetica Magazine Templates

…or simply take a trip on New York’s subway system

Helvetica Font Subway
You can’t escape from the Helvetiva font -(picture by Oran Viriyincy (Flickr)

TIMES NEW ROMAN

Times New Roman is commonly used in books, newspapers, legal documents and academia. While this typeface does not inspire strong reactions like Helvetica, it has been all around us since the 1930s. Times New Roman has survived not only the Second World War but also accompanied us into the digital age of the 21st century.  That is not a bad track record for a font that has been described as “the font of least resistance”.

Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. – Matthew Butterick

So, what’s the story behind “the most successful typeface of the first half of the 20th century”? 

Times New Roman
Times New Roman

The birth of Times New Roman is widely attributed to two creators: The first is the colorful Stanley Morison, one of the most important figures in 20th century printing, the second the designer Victor Lardent. But this version of the story has been disputed:  There is a theory that William Starling Burgess, a man mainly known for his innovative plane and yacht designs, is the real author.

But let’s start from the beginning:

Times New Roman
Times New Roman

The British designer Stanley Morison is born in 1898. He discovers his love of typography and old fonts early on but does not have the luxury of entering formal education as a designer. But Morison is persistent, passionately pursuing his dream against the odds of his poor background:  In 1912 he manages to get a job in publishing despite having no formal education in the field. But his new career-path his short-lived: In 1914 war breaks out in Europe. Morison refuses military conscription and is punished with a two-year prison sentence. This, however, does not prevent his career from taking off once the war is over:  Morison manages to work his way up in the publishing world and spends the following decades working for multiple publications as a designer, consultant, editor and writer. He becomes the go-to expert in typography and print, publishing multiple notable books and articles. His work allows him to indulge in his love of old typefaces and calligraphy, bringing multiple old fonts into the 20th century by adapting them to machine composition.

In the late 1920s Morison embarks on the most important project of his life: 

Having criticized the typography of The Times newspaper as being difficult to read, he is challenged by the newspaper management to find a better solution. Morison teams up with Victor Lardent, a designer working for the newspaper, to solve the challenge of creating a font that is unobtrusive and easy to read whilst simultaneously saving space. Paper costs money, after all.

Three years later, in 1932, Times New Roman, the new visual signature of The Times is launched. The unobtrusive font turns out to be a huge success: It has since been taken up by multiple other publications and successfully entered the digital age as a pre-installed staple font on both Apple and Microsoft computers. Not bad for a font which Morison himself describes as having the merit of not looking as if it had been designed by somebody in particular.”

The Times
The Times using… Times New Roman

But the limelight, even when occupied by a font as unobtrusive as Times New Roman, also attracts enemies:

In the midst of the 1990s tech boom, long after Morisons death, Mike Parker and Gerald Giampas dispute Morisons authorship of the font:  

They claim to have discovered proof that the font was in fact designed by William Starling Burgess, a man who is mainly known as an innovative yacht and aircraft designer. According to this version of the story the company Lanston Monotyne commissioned the typeface from him and then tried to sell it to a number of companies including The Times. This is how the font came into the hands of Morison who used it without giving credit to its true creator.

The problem with this version of the story is that Giampas and Parker have failed to produce any convincing evidence. No less than three disasters have destroyed the possibility of confirming (or disconfirming) the validity of their claims: A fire is said to have destroyed evidence of Burgess’s typographic work that was kept in his shipyard. Over 20 years later a World War 2 bomb destroyed many documents that could have given us more insight into the creation of the font. Finally in 2000, 82 years after the shipyard fire, Giampa’s house was flooded, destroying all of the evidence from the Lanston Monotyne archives. The only piece of proof that remains is a pattern plate of the letter B.  

The whole story therefore -quite literally- hangs on one letter.

Be that as it may:

Why so much commotion over a typeface?  It is common practice to create new fonts that are inspired by already existing fonts. Where do you draw the line between plagiarism and inspiration?

Morison made no secret of the fact that Times New Roman was inspired by an already-existing font called Plantin.  And surely Burgess and Lanston Monotyne would have noticed the theft of their intellectual property and spoken up while they were still alive.

The real question is this: What motive would cause Morison to hide Burgess’s authorship? And what has really motivated Giampas and Parker to question the story behind Times New Roman?  Did they really want to vindicate Burgess, was it all just a practical joke or was their some other motive behind their actions?

Why so much drama over a font?

But- of course- Times New Roman is not just a font:  It’s a trademark. And given that it is so widely used there is a lot of money to be made by whoever owns the rights. Is it really a coincidence that the controversy over its origin occurred in 1994, two years after it was first launched by Windows?

We will probably never know what really happened. Morison, Lardent, Burgess, Giampa and Parka are all dead. The only thing that remains is the Starling typeface Parka released in 2009 and a pattern-plate of the letter “B”.

Maybe the next time we type it on our laptop we will be reminded that- sometimes -everything hangs on a single letter.

If you need more Times New Roman in your life, check out:

Buy the Times New Roman font: Buy Times New Roman

Typography for lawyers:

Thank you for reading.

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