Helvetica 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.
When Linotype adopted Neue Haas Grotesk (which was never planned to be a full range of mechanical and hot-metal typefaces) its design was reworked. After the success of Univers, Arthur Ritzel of Stempel redesigned Neue Haas Grotesk into a larger family.
In 1960, the typeface's name was changed by Haas' German parent company Stempel to Helvetica (meaning Swiss in Latin) in order to make it more marketable internationally.
In 2007, Linotype GmbH held the Helvetica NOW Poster Contest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the typeface. Winners were announced in January 2008 issue of the LinoLetter.
In 2007, director Gary Hustwit released a documentary film, Helvetica (Plexifilm, DVD), to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the typeface. In the film, graphic designer Wim Crouwel said, "Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface... We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn't have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface." The documentary also presented other designers who associated Helvetica with authority and corporate dominance, and whose rebellion from Helvetica's ubiquity created new styles.
From April 2007 to March 2008, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City displayed an exhibit called "50 Years of Helvetica", which celebrated the many uses of the typeface. In 2011 the Disseny Hub Barcelona displayed an exhibit called Helvetica. A New Typeface?. The exhibition included a timeline of Helvetica’s consolidation over the last fifty years with a view to understanding its role in the history of design, as well as its antecedents and its subsequent influence. The itinerary started out with a selection of local works, highlighting the top-quality design of current and past creations whose common denominator is their use of Helvetica.
In 2011, one of Google's April Fool's Day jokes centered around the use of Helvetica. If a user attempted to search for the term "Helvetica" using the search engine the results would be displayed in the font Comic Sans.