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Tag Archives: Metamagical Themas

The Ubiquity of the Clear, the Human, the Humane: Helvetica

Many thumbs up for the documentary Helvetica (2007), that happens to be on Netflix Instant Play. I just love the uncovering of these kinds of things, pointing out the omnipresence and therefore degreed omnipotence of something we regularly fail to see. (And since Hofstadtler wrote on fonts in Metamagical Themas, I have to say I have retained a fascination over their incredible expressivity.

The film follows the literal and cultural history of the font Helvetica, up to present day, a font whose ubiquitousness is compared by some interviewees, to air and gravity or at least off-white paint…its just there. Is it a McDonalds of mal-nutricious typeface, ready at every corner, or an elegant expression of what IS? For instance Massimo Vignelli, a “high priest” of design modernism, compares the life work of a designer to the work of a doctor. Whereas physicians fight against disease, designers fight against visual disease, ugliness, which he finds all around us. Typography, we are told, isn’t even the art of black and white, but really the art of the white, the space between the black, like music which is the art of the space between the notes. And Massimo generously numbers the quantity of quality typefaces at barely a dozen, using himself only three.

Driven by legibility, Helvetica is the model modern typeface, carrying the right connotations, perhaps the very “clear and distinct” yet embodied idea of Descartes. Codifed high modernism. Described as “doing away with the manual details” of the 19th century typeface, it achieved a certain gridlike “neutrality” that was and is perceived as “meaningless,” non-occluding.

As one admiring explicator tells it “Its not a letter that’s bent into shape. Its a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space…the figure-ground relationship properly executed”.

But it is not only clear and distinct, but also commanding or unquestioning in its clarity. Paradoxically, still, a commanding quality that is not authoritarian, rather rounded, softly exact, an accessible humanity-clarity. It seems to hold a power beyond even our familiarity with it, our cultural, historically contingent associations. It practically speaks “man” in the blankest of senses.

This kind of beautiful expressiveness of typeface has a power beneath message of course. As one designer speaks of typeface choice: one might not be conscious of a typeface, but one will be affected, in the way that an actor miscast in a role will affect the believability of a story, while not impairing the ability of an audience to follow the plot. The choice of typeface is that of a casting director.

And then in the film is the marvelous, self-confessed typo-maniac Mark Spiekermann (above), who practically spits out in disgust in description of Helvetica: “The guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same. He-llooo. That’s called an army, that’s not people. That’s people having the same fucking helmet on”

His engaging, typographical driven English blog is here  – he has a German blog as well. And I must say that I feel compelled to type in his FF Meta typeface. Practically on principle, but also out of aesthetic embrace. (I wish I knew how to download and default typefaces.)

Another designer commenting on it being the urban signification system beautifully calls Helvetica the perfume of the city. Something we would miss if it were not there. And we must wonder if that is not true.

We follow the anti-Helvetica warning “Don’t confuse legibility with communication,” and muse about its radical dominance for half a century while nearly everything else has changed, if “it contains s certain design program” or how a typeface can become an “unfixable” typeface.

These thoughts bring me to a past contemplation of mine, on perhaps the very first anti-Helvetical font, centuries before printed type: Lindisfarne: The Rise of Illuminative Script

Personally I am conflicted about Helvetica, for I cannot deny that profound and fundamental effect the typeface has on me, in particular in commercial circumstances (though surely in government and legal contexts as well). It is indeed reassuring in a kind of subtly rich, nurturing fashion, denying me my status in the revolutionary aesthetic guard, no doubt. But when I think about the things and passions spoken by the Anti-Helveticans, I am also stirred, finding my way, conceptually, somewhere close to the want for an aboriginal deviation that I have not quite found. Helvetica is never sufficient for any personal communications. (I’ve changed my email default many times, and seem to enjoy the serif Sylfaen.) The wish is for a kind of doctrinal handwriting of a typeface, if there were such a thing as a personal typeface (how one would tire of that in a way that one does not tire of one’s handwriting).

In any case, the font we use becomes politicized, aestheticized, in such very important and beautiful ways. Typo-philes are a kind of literal philosopher who gazes at the actual frame in which messages appear. Perhaps we should choose and read more carefully.