Helvetica

Helvetica_font_inspiration_by_RuiRaposo

I’m obviously a typeomaniac, which is an incurable if not mortal disease. I can’t explain it. I just love, I just like looking at type. I just get a total kick out of it: they are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or, you know, girls’ bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It’s a little worrying, I admit, but it’s a very nerdish thing to do.

Erik SpiekermannHelvetica

Who would have thought that a documentary about a font would be so engaging?   But in an age where the message is less important than the image, it makes sense we should care about how we write our sweet nothings.

Helvetica-film

This film length doco by Garry Hustwit opens our eyes to the subtle world of graphic design through the case study of Helvetica.  Educating the audience on what differentiates one type-face from another, it slowly unveils a new way of looking at the world around us.  We discover that Helvetica is ubiquitous – appearing on magazines; signs; web-pages; billboards; logos; to fast food wrapping.

Helvetica, we learn, was loved and loved to death by designers in the years after its popular release   It is even described as a ‘perfect font’, where any changes to it are only detrimental.  Apparently Apple bought the rights to use Helvetica on their early printers and computers while Microsoft chose not to pay the rights, and instead had another font – Arial – designed as a copy; where minor angles and spacings were altered to avoid copyright – but resulted in a ‘lesser font’.  And hence, Arial, has become a bit of a ‘dirty’ font in the design community.

Perhaps this is all not too dis-similar from the old joke, “Times New Roman, Arial and Palentino walk into a bar and ask for a drink.  The bar keeper says – ‘Sorry, we don’t serve your type here.’ “

Being used as a default font on many Apples products, Helvetica’s use became prolific.  So much so, that during the grunge movement of the 90s, many designers rejected the Swiss Modernist font for more messy abstract typography and wording arrangements – now made possible through the advent of the computer.  A few years ago you were ‘hot stuff’ if you could casually drop the words “I prefer a sans serif font” in conversation.   But now, the discussion has moved far beyond that to raging online forums between fans of different fonts professing more neutrality, or conversely, emotion.

For weeks after seeing the film, I became mildly obsessed in trying to discern between different fonts on signs, posters and nasty blogs, where you have to pay extra for the freedom to use certain typefaces – a la, this one!  It is fascinating to learn how many organsiations use Helvetica.  The company I work for has an official ‘Style Guide’ that all documents have to adhere to.  This requires the use of only pre-specified fonts, colours, and demands two spaces between sentences – to assist the ease of reading.

Pick-A-Bad-Photo-Apply-A-Vintage-Effect-And-Use-Helvetica

Because we spend too much time in front of screens we have become somewhat obsessive about the minor details.  I believe that because modern life is so hectic and because we ‘undergo information’ overload daily, that we have really do appreciate clear, simple design.  Just consider the popularity of the white spaced Google home page compared to the Yahoo hyperlink/underlined/italicized everything overload.  Moreover, consider the shear appeal of sleek Apple products.  However we have been spoon-fed to believe that clean design and simple fonts are the best – partly because of Apple brilliantly marketing its products. 

Sepia tones and Instagram effects are a natural response to the overly slick design elements that we see in our everyday life.  People try to reject the ‘point and shoot’ camera where both the foreground and the background are in focus; people are choosing to wash their high resolution image with a particular effect – emulating the imperfections of previous technology such as over exposure –  to make their images feel more authentic.  And less commercial / squeaky clean.  (I wonder whether the orange date-stamp will ever come back in?)

It is as if we are caught between two extremes: on one hand the simplicity and clarity of sleek, clear design – including Helveitca and sans serif fonts; and, on the other hand, the warmth of and genuine nature of imperfection, textured styles, and type characters with character.

As Garry Hustwit’s first installment of his Design Trilogy Helvetica stands as his finest piece.  Objectified – his second film looks at industrial design; and Urbanized, his third, focuses on Architecture.  Both are engaging but lack the intrigue of his opener –  a must watch for anybody who uses a computer or reads – basically, just see it.

Typography is the new calligraphy.  So sorry Mum, but a ClipArt picture of a stick man and a light bulb teamed up with a rainbow coloured heading from WordArt no longer cut it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Helvetica

  1. Love this. I went to the Gutenberg Museum (guy who’s known for inventing the western printing press) last year and they had an entire exhibition on typography.

    Have you talked to Leon about Helvetica?

    • Gutenberg Museum eh? – sounds fascinating…
      Ah yes – Leon is well aware of this 🙂
      Good you enjoyed reading it – I recommend watching the three docos when you get a chance

  2. Leon

    I’d love to see this — how did you get a hold of it again?

    It is as if we are caught between two extremes: on one hand the simplicity and clarity of sleek, clear design – including Helveitca and sans serif fonts; and, on the other hand, the warmth of and genuine nature of imperfection, textured styles, and type characters with character.

    Interesting thought. Instagram sepia tones via a “flat” smartphone interface.

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