week 2 IXD102 – PROJECT 1 – Research for type specimen wallpaper screen

For our assignment we were asked to choose from 6 typefaces and create a type specimen screen for an iPad of 768 x 1024 pixels in Illustrator, Sketch, or Figma.

We were given the following typeface options:

  • Baskerville
  • Futura
  • Gill Sans
  • Helvetica
  • Palatino
  • Times New Roman

After some research into what each typeface looked like and was used for, I decided on Helvetica.

Why I chose Helvetica and my research into the typeface:

I chose Helvetica because it’s a sans serif font, meaning that it sways into the modern category while also having the ability to fit with more traditional design too.

As a result of this it is a highly versatile font that is used in many companies and urban environments.  Helvetica is used almost exclusively in the international typographic style too which I really liked, as whenever I researched the Swiss style posters I really enjoyed what they had to offer.

It was created in 1957 by Swiss designers Max Miedinger and Edward Hoffman and was originally known as “Neve Has Grotesk” but changed in 1960 to Helvetica (meaning “Swiss” in Latin) in order to make it more marketable overseas.

I liked how neutral this typeface was and how it seemed almost omnipresent in a way.  We see Helvetica everywhere but never seem to notice it.  In a 2007 documentary about this subject the man who chose Helvetica for the New York subway said “There are people who think type should be expressive; they have a different view from me”.  this demonstrates that he deliberately selected the typeface for its functional invisibility.  Helvetica is meant to be boring.  The designers set out specifically to make a neutral and versatile design that lacked personality.

Sketchbook research into this typeface:

At first I did general, non specific research into Helvetica:

I did a mind map of specific research I could include in the screen:

I finally decided on short phrases/ text I could use:

Some general examples of type specimen screens I liked when first starting my research:

I found through this preliminary research that I liked designs that made use of varying opacities throughout the screen, overlapping text, and bright, striking colours.

“Helvetica” – The movie

The documentary began by saying that everywhere you walk you see typefaces; but there’s one you see probably more than any other- Helvetica.  Helvetica was described as being like “air” or “gravity” because of its omnipresence.

Massimo Vignelli

Vignelli used an analogy to describe the role of a designer.  he described designing as “fighting against ugliness”, just like a doctor fights disease- a designer will fight visual disease around us; curing it with design.  Vignelli said that some people felt “type should be expressive” and that “they had a different opinion” from him.

After researching Vignelli’s work in more depth I found his work for Knoll International to be very inspiring to me for my type specimens.  I really like the use of overlaying different colours as well as the writing rotated at a 30 degree angle.  These are two things ill think about when drawing out my designs.

Remembering Massimo Vignelli, modernist master - 99designs

He explained that Helvetica was generated from the desire of having better legibility.  Design in general is about making things work run more smoothly and work better; type is no different and the purpose of it is to convey information.  As a result of this he felt there was a sense of social responsibility among designers to create designs that are easily understandable.


During the period of Swiss design (1957) there was a need for rational typefaces which could be applied to contemporary information- whether its sign systems or corporate identity.  Helvetica made it easy to present this information in an intelligible, legible way.

Wim Crouwel

Crouwel described himself as someone very interested in clarity- no matter what’s being communicated it should be clear, readable, and straightforward.  He started using grids  as “tools to create order” as a result of this.  He believed that the typeface/ design should be “neutral” and the meaning is in the content of the text, not in the typeface.


Mathew Carter

Mathew Carter is a typeface designer who when asked about his design process, explained that he starts by creating a lowercase “h” because it would indicate the most easily and quickly that it was a sans serif or serif font.  He explained that one of the most characteristic and beautiful features of Helvetica is the horizontal terminals you see in the lowercase a and c and g for example.  “Die Neue Haas Grotesk” was the original typeface.  Its said that Eduard Hoffman who had been the boss at Haas type foundary had set out to make a modernised version of Akzidenz-Grotesk which was traditionally a 19th century German sans serif.  it was Max Miedinger that made the drawings for Helvetica.  The marketing director at Stempelhead suggested the name Helvetia- latin for Switzerland.  Miedinger suggested “Swiss” in latin made more sense than Switzerland and so it was changed to “Helvetica”

Branding & Helvetica

He described Helvetica as having the power to make a brand come off as “accessible, accountable, and transparent”.  American Apparel uses it and it looks cheeky, however government branding uses it and it looks professional and trustworthy; one of the things that makes this font so appealing is that it’s so flexible.   He used the analogy that designing/ choosing a typeface for a particular brand isn’t that different from the job of a casting director.  Misusing a typeface is the same as miscasting an actor in a role they aren’t suited to.  Its not always obvious to the viewer but it will still subconsciously affect their entire experience and perception of the movie/ brand.


Erik Spiekermann

Helvetica “was” a good typeface at the time according to Spiekermann, but with time its lost its effectiveness.  It was the default font with the Apple Macintosh and then became the default on Windows because they commonly copied apples strategies.  Spiekermann said that “Its never going to go away; its ubiquitous, its air, its just there.  Theres no choice, you have to breath and so you have to use Helvetica”.

He complained that when Edward Hoffman designed it he tried to make every letter look the same.  He said that it was like an “army” instead of diverse individuals, and argued that it decreased legibility as a result.  In his eyes letters must be similar enough to look like they go together, but have enough differences to allow us to read them; they need to be individuals in order to work- just like people.

Spiekermann said that people buy certain things from brands because the brand has rubbed off on them- just like how someone listens to new music from artists who they have liked in the past even if the quality of the new music is lacking.  Helvetica is used with this in mind.  People will be more inclined to trust and buy from a brand that’s using Helvetica if they’ve trusted a previous brand also using Helvetica.

Paula Scher 

Whenever Paula started studying design she realised there were “two different types of design”; the first was corporate culture.  This is the visual language of big corporations, and they commonly used Helvetica.  Her perception of Helvetica and modernism in general was that it made her feel like she had to rebel against the boring minimalism of Helvetica and create designs that inspired her artistically and had “personality”.  Postmodernist period designers broke away from clean, orderly design – the “horrible slickness of it all” as they saw it, and wanted to produce something with “vitality”.

The typography Paula uses very often has letters of varying thickness, and she purposefully shrinks the sizing of the letters of words as they are read from left to right.  This is something that would be deeply frowned upon by modernist designers and typical Helvetica users:

Paula Scher. The Diva is Dismissed. 1994 | MoMA


Behind Art & Design: Paula Scher


Stephan Sagmeister

Sagmsister was a postmodernist designer, and his view was much the same as Paulas in that it lacked personality and was overdone.  He got “severely disappointed with modernism in general” when starting his design career, and the overall communication of companies using Helvetica in brochures and posters was that he shouldn’t take the time to read or invest himself in them because they would “bore” him.

Stephan Sagmeister disregarded the idea of always using pre made typefaces, and instead favours hand drawn typography a lot of the time.  His goal with typography is to make it come alive, tell a story, and have personality. This is an extremely different view to people more in favour of Helvetica- who believe type should only be used for legibility, and that the information being communicated should speak for itself.

The collected lyrics of Lou Reed features a self portrait with embossed type on its cover. I went to a show in Soho by middle Eastern artist Shirin Neshat. She used Arabic type written on hands and feet. It was very personal. When I came back I read Lou’s lyrics for Trade In, a very personal song about his need to change. We used his lyrics written on his face. Design: Stefan Sagmeister, Hjalti Karlsson, Jan Wilker.

This 60 second advertisement for the conservative (and socially conscious) bank Standard Chartered takes its typographic approach throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Art Direction: Stefan Sagmeister; Design: Joe Shouldice, Stephan Walter, Andrew Byrom.

Adobe approached us to interpret their MAX typography as well as their Creative Cloud logo. We wondered what we could do with a few basic tools in an empty studio space for a 24-hour straight play session. The process was live streamed on a Times Square billboard. Art Directors: Stefan Sagmeister, Jessica Walsh; Designers: Santiago Carrasquilla, Wade Jeffree; Photographer: Henry Hargreaves.




Massimo Vignelli saw the postmodern work as a “disease”, and the designers as “headless chickens” with no order or rules.  Postmodernist work was so diametrically opposed to modernism that by the mid 90s design was made confusing and very conflicted.  Typography was so broken, jumbled and confused by the end of the 20th century that the only thing designers had the option of doing was to go back and return to an earlier time, however with a new set of rules (many created by postmodernism) this time to support it.

Danny Van Den Dungen from Experimental Jetset

Danny Van Den Dungen was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands- somewhere that uses Helvetica in day to day urban settings and branding a lot; many of the common routine objects such as phonebooks were designed by Wim Crouwel using Helvetica.  Everything was dominated by the late modernist movement, and so for him it was a natural choice to use the typeface in his own work Danny believed that it was possible for anyone to put their own spin on Helvetica because it was so versatile. He hated the view that Helvetica was a global monster.

Experimental Jetset | Inspiration Lab

Experimental Jetset Full Scale False Scale - Idea Books

This is why Experimental Jetset is a living part of typographic history | TypeRoom

Aesthetics of Risk: Experimental Jetset

Experimental_Jetset_3 - Alfalfa Studio

“Helvetica is our starting point; it’s like a blank piece of paper” When the 3 designers from Experimental Jetset graduated in 1997, typefaces were beginning to proliferate and distract designers from the concept at hand, a phenomenon they were keen to avoid; Helvetica allowed them to avoid this problem.

I really admire Experimental Jetsets work because I think it is proof that Helvetica can be used in an experimental, eccentric way without being boring and looking overdone.  Their designs don’t communicate as much personality and individuality as a postmodernist graphic designers work like Paula Scher or Stephan Sagmeister, however they still are interesting and engaging enough that the viewer will want to read the information.  They use eccentric colours, overlaying, a range of different opacities, and they’re not afraid to include painterly techniques too- something that the modernists would have avoided completely.


Sketching out my ideas on paper:

When creating my own type specimen screens I tried my best to use the rule of thirds as a guideline, and to be as experimental as possible with my compositions.  I kept the work of Experimental Jetset in mind when sketching out my designs and deciding on colour themes:

Deciding on a colour theme:

I really wanted to use non traditional colours in my type specimen for Helvetica.  Traditional colours of the Swiss style would make them look too typical and I didn’t want to feed into the ideology of Helvetica being a boring typeface.  I took inspiration from Experimental Jetset and Paula Scher for my colour scheme, and tried to avoid combining reds, whites, dull blues, and blacks.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *