Blue Pencil no. 11 addendum

R. Roger Remington and Robert S.R. Fripp, the authors of Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin, expend a lot of effort to prove that Will Burtin was responsible for the popularity of Helvetica in the United States. In Blue Pencil no. 11 I challenged the evidence they presented in support of this claim. Here I want to put forth a counter-claim: that Massimo Vignelli is the individual who deserves credit (or blame)—if anyone does—for the spread of Helvetica in this country. This is a claim that Vignelli himself has made himself and one that deserves to be taken seriously.

Helvetica was not available in the United States in the early 1960s because of technical differences between American and European type. In 1963 German Linotype began shipping Helvetica matrices to the United States but they could only be used on American machines with special adjustments. That problem was solved in early 1965 when Mergenthaler Linotype in Brooklyn began manufacturing Helvetica matrices for the domestic market. (The 10 pt size was ready as early as February 1964.) At the same time D. Stempel AG exported foundry type Helvetica that was milled to American height*.

Massimo Vignelli moved to the United States from Milano, Italy at the end of 1965 to take control of the New York office of Unimark International. One of the things he brought with him was a passion for Helvetica which was quickly adopted by the other Unimark principals. Jan Conradi, author of Unimark: The Design of Business and the Business of Design, writes, “Unimark’s work on identity, signage and wayfinding systems relied heavily on Helvetica.” (p. 146). The typeface was an essential element of its philosophy. As Conradi quotes Ralph Eckerstrom, the firm’s CEO, “So we decided we were going to clean up U.S. communications. We were going to simplify the message by simplifying the type.” (p. 146)

“Less experienced designers [than Harri Boller who preferred Univers] soon learned that their company’s leaders were serious about the clarity and serviceability of Helvetica. Any decision to explore other options was not taken lightly. ‘It was a tougher fight within the company than it was with the clients,’ said Ron Coates. ‘At the time I didn’t understand, but I understand now that to people like Jay [Doblin], that was what set the mark of the company. To change it had to be absolutely like we were attacking a religion.’ Steve Eckerstrom agreed. ‘To Massimo Vignelli, and to Jay Doblin, Helvetica was really the platonic ideal.’” (Unimark: The Design of Business and the Business of Design, p. 149).

Unimark subsequently specified Helvetica as the corporate typeface for the following companies and institutions between 1966 and 1979, the year that the firm (excluding its Milano office) closed down: American Airlines (p. 160), Knoll International (p. 173, Ford Motor Company (pp. 158–159), Varian Medical Systems, J.C. Penney (pp. 119-120, 186–188), Dayton Corporation (Target), Panasonic (pp. 83), Memorex (pp. 167-168, 227), Gillette (p. 145), educational publisher Scott Foresman, Alcoa (p. 84), Teledyne, Great Western United (a sugar producer) (p. 105), the Denver Public Library (p. 107), Denver General Hospital, Standard Oil of Indiana, Trans Union (p. 176), Frontier Airlines (p. 162), Colorado’s Regional Transportation District (p. 161), Xerox (p. 174), Central National Bank (p. 181), office equipment manufacturer Corry Jamestown (p. 182), New Orleans department store Maison Blanche (p. 190), Mercy Medical Center in Chicago (p. 193), furniture manufacturer Wickes (p. 205), and Ecodyne (pp. 206–207). This is only a partial list. The page numbers in parentheses indicate images in Unimark: The Design of Business and the Business of Design that show Helvetica in use for these companies. Dot Zero, the design magazine published by Unimark and sponsored by paper manufacturer Finch Pruyn & Co., Inc. from 1966 to 1968, was edited and designed by Vignelli. It was set in Helvetica.

Vignelli himself was directly responsible for the use of Helvetica by American Airlines (1981: p. 6; 1990: pp. 33, 82), Knoll International (1981: pp. 9, 38-39; 1990: pp. 36-38, 160), Heller (the housewares company) (1981: p. 13), the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (for the 1972 subway map, but not for the signage) (1981: p. 20, 1990: p. 95), the Washington Metro signage (1981: p. 22; 1990: p. 97), the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts (1981: pp. 48–49; 1990: pp. 184–185), the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (1990: pp. 40-41), and the United States National Park Service (1990: pp. 44–45) in the 1960s and 1970s. (The page references are to design: Vignelli (1981) and design: Vignelli (1990).) Many of these companies and institutions were clients he acquired after he left Unimark to set up Vignelli Associates with his wife Lella in 1971.

Vignelli was one of the five members of the committee that oversaw the creation of Symbol Signs: The System of Passenger/Pedestrian Oriented Symbols Developed for the U.S. Department of Transportation by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (New York: Visual Communication Books, Hastings House, Publishers, 1981). The book was set entirely in Helvetica.

Between 1966 and 1981 Massimo Vignelli was clearly the most influential figure behind the popularity of Helvetica in the United States. He was not the only major designer who used the face as soon as it became available in 1965—Arnold Saks and Muriel Cooper were early adopters—but his work and that of his colleagues at Unimark affected a wider swath of American business, culture and government.

*Visual Graphics Corporation (VGC) began marketing a Helvetica-clone (called TH-2) for typositor use early in 1965. By 1973 they were selling an official film version of Helvetica. Mergenthaler Linotype issued its first Linofilm Helvetica fonts in 1967. Monotype did not make Helvetica available for Monotype and Monophoto machines until late 1971. The history of Helvetica in transfer type is less clear. In 1968 Artype offered a version but so far I have no information as to when Letraset, Presstype or Mecanorma did.