Helvetica, which had a major impact in the 1960s and 1970s, has shaped the urban landscape like no other typeset before.Its clear and simple form has contributed to its widespread use the world over - from Zurich to Milan, London, Berlin to Tokyo and New York. It can be seen wherever you look, on advertising boards, menus, and street or train signs.
A very early advertisement using Helvetica, dating to 1959
Also known as the International Typographic Style, the Swiss Style or Helvetica was an extension of Bauhaus principles developed mainly in Zurich and Basle in the period leading up to the Second World War. It was developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann at the Haas'sche Schriftgiesserei (Haas type foundry) of Münchenstein, Switzerland. Haas set out to design a new sans-serif typeface that could compete with the successful Akzidenz-Grotesk in the Swiss market. Originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, its design was based on Schelter-Grotesk and Haas’ Normal Grotesk. The aim of the new design was to create a neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form, and could be used on a wide variety of signage.
In 1960, the typeface's name was changed by Haas' German parent company Stempel to Helvetica (derived from Confoederatio Helvetica, the Latin name for Switzerland) in order to make it more marketable internationally. It was initially suggested that the type be called 'Helvetia' which is the original Latin name for Switzerland. This was ignored by Eduard Hoffmann as he decided it wouldn't be appropriate to name a type after a country. He then decided on 'Helvetica' as this meant 'Swiss' as opposed to 'Switzerland'.
Below are some links to a few interesting essay on the history of type looking at the place of Helvetica in the time line.