Just what separates a brand name in a standard, mass-distributed typeface from a bona fide logo? One of them is generic and basically worthless, while the other is (hopefully) an impactful, memorable, skillfully made, often very expensive work of design.
In plainer terms, one of them is nothing, the other is something. Getting from point A to point B is one of the most common, difficult tasks that a graphic designer faces. How do you do it?
Helvetica offers the best possible lesson. Developed in 1957 by Swiss type designers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, Helvetica is such a versatile typeface that it is virtually everywhere—logo designs included.
In this post, we’ll look at 20 extremely famous logos all derived from Helvetica. That’s less than half of the big brand companies out there whose logotypes are based on this font, but a good sampling nonetheless—one that shows how a single typeface can work across industries from motorcycles (Harley-Davidson) to makeup (NARS).
The results are varied: some hardly resemble Helvetica anymore at all, while others tweak the typeface only ever so slightly. As we’ll see, though, even tiny adjustments of kerning (the space between letters) or ligatures (connections between letters), not to mention color, can make a huge difference.
Note that from here on we’ll show the actual logo first, then a version in plain black, unmodified Helvetica below it.
Lufthansa is also pretty close to Helvetica Black, but introduces some slight changes to the thickness of certain elements—for example, the vertical shaft of the « L » and the top of the « a »—that really takes it from good to great. Plus, love that orange.
The North Face, by contrast, totally transforms the font through vivid color and text right-aligned with a graphic emblem which we interpret as a cliff, appropriate for the outdoor outfitters.
Knoll’s logo relies more on the impact of its signature color.
Microsoft starts from Helvetica Black Oblique, the italic variant of the heavy font, and makes itself unique through a distinctive ligature between the « f » and « t, » as well as one between the « o » and « s » that takes a cut out of the former.
Skype, meanwhile, starts with Helvetica Rounded Bold, smashes the letters together and encloses them within a friendly bubble. Not our favorite aesthetic, but it is recognizable.
Both the Japanese manufacturer Panasonic and the German manufacturer Blaupunkt stay very close to standard Helvetica typefaces, spicing them up mainly with color.
While Panasonic absorbs this into the letters themselves, Blaupunkt isolates it within an emblematic blue dot.
Would you have ever guessed that Harley Davidson, the quintessential symbol of masculine Americana, was based on a Swiss typeface? Granted, there are significant changes here, to the point where very little other than the basic shape of Helvetica Extra Compressed remains – although can definitely see it in the « D »s.
Jeep remains much more similar to its source, but widens the loop of the « J, » drops and tweaks the « e »s and rounds the inside points of the « p. »
We’re not sure if the Scotch logo is very successful apart from the signature plaid pattern found on its tape products, which carries much of the brand mark’s mnemonic weight.
The simply named 3M, on the other hand, soars to great heights by mashing its two glyphs together and closing in the « 3 » somewhat.
Target’s logo is pretty uninspiring, frankly, but it is effective—a thickened up version of Helvetica Bold (not quite as thick as Helvetica Black) with a target sign whose rings are of equal weight.
JC Penney is nothing to write home about, either, but is noteworthy for being one of few companies to make use of Helvetica’s slimmer variety, Helvetica Light.
Cosmetics and hygiene
Oral-B, which makes toothbrushes and other dental care items, totally transforms its base font through an interesting ligature between the « r » and « a »—weirdly reminiscent of Microsoft, now that we look at it—and another that elides the dash with the B.
NARS transforms Helvetica Light (we think) with equal bravado by slimming down the characters even further and overlapping them.
Talk about big differences here! Could you imagine a bigger disparity between the bold, tight and bright Dole logo, which rounds the « o » into a sun and adds curves to the « l, » and its standard, drab appearance in Helvetica Black?
Likewise, the Swiss chocolatier Nestlé makes use of its national typographic inheritance, but implements major changes, rounding all the corners and adding a distinctive bar. Then they put a bird on it.
In sum, you can take a basic typeface and turn it into logo potential through the following types of tweaks:
- Tightened kerning (the distance between letters)
- Unique alignment (like in the North Face logo)
- Added ligatures (connected letters)
- Modified glyphs (slightly changing the shape of the letters)
- An emblem or other graphic component
That’s just to name a few, and of course, the exact route you take will depend on your brand and brief.
Which of these logos do you think is the most successful? Share in the comments!
Featured image: Luca Mascaro (via Flickr)