Everybody's type

Published May 2, 2007

GENEVA - Open a newspaper, look at a street sign, type an e-mail and chances are a Swiss design icon is staring you in the face, though you'd be hard-pressed to identify it.

But peer closely at the shape of the letters: If they're easy to read and without unnecessary flourishes, then you might well be looking at an example of the Helvetica typeface, which turns 50 this year.

Helvetica lettering adorns images most people can conjure up instantly, from highway signs to the logos of Harley-Davidson, American Airlines and BMW.

But much of the time it remains invisible in a sea of print, unobtrusively conveying the message the designer intended it to.

Somewhat unusual for the little-celebrated craft of typography - the design and arrangement of typed letters - the anniversary is being marked with an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the release of a film (Helvetica, making the festival rounds) by Gary Hustwit paying homage to what the cult documentarymaker calls "one of the most popular ways for us to communicate our words."

"Helvetica is one of those typefaces that everybody knows, everybody sees, but they don't really see it at the same time because it's so good at its job. It communicates efficiently and quickly without imposing itself, " says Christian Larson, curator of the museum show, which runs until the end of the year. The show's centerpiece is a 26.5-pound set of original lead lettering on loan from Lars Mueller, a Swiss publisher.

Helvetica secured a crucial place in the original 11 typefaces supplied with Apple computers, so that when the desktop publishing revolution started, it became the default choice for amateur graphic designers.

As an aside to St. Petersburg Times readers, the Swiss-designed font is no longer used much in the Times; for our sans serif typeface, we opted to go with the Canadian-designed Brown Gothic, which uses some similar letter forms.

On the Web

All about Helvetica

- Go to www.moma.org; and search for "50 Years of Helvetica."

- For information on the film, go to www.helveticafilm.com.