Saturday, 7 January 2012

Helvetica: The Film

How much difference can a typeface (1) make? If it’s loud, exciting, bright and high on impact perhaps it’ll grab your attention on a poster from across the room. But what about a subtle typeface, one that’s everywhere and the very definition of neutrality?

The 2007 documentary Helvetica covers the history of the world’s most used typeface. Starting with its invention and rise across all mediums after World War II, Helvetica was the go-to weapon against all clumsy busyness in design which the International Style was fighting. It believed that being neutral would not distract from the message conveyed. It could be used anywhere for anything.

It spread across corporate identities, each more like the last. It was used on signs to give directions, warnings, rules and advice. It spoke to you in adverts, telling you in neutral and impartial voice that you want this, now, it’s the right choice.

Then in the 1970’s a backlash started to build (2). Helvetica had become the voice of command, control, and due to converging brand identities, that of all corporations. Always telling you want to do, what you wanted and where to go. While neutral, its omnipresence made it oppressive and authoritarian.

We now seem to be mid-swing again on the popularity pendulum, with camps of designers still for or against its use and some readopting it. Using it in new ways, not set in the wide open plains of primary colours it was made for, but chopping it up, moving it, breaking the words into pieces, compressing and using it in more dynamic ways.

The reaction against overuse of a popular fashion is predictable. People become tired of seeing the same idea repeated and it looses its impact and freshness. Things which appear different in a monoculture are attractive just because they aren’t what is commonly used.

But this wasn’t the main reasons given for the reaction against Helvetica. Instead it was driven by what it had come to be associated with: corporations, authority and control. By constantly being employed in corporate identities, street signs, tax forms etc, became infused with the negative aspects of its use. What was employed purely because it was neutral, now appeared not be neutral anymore, but the minion of oppressive and controlling powers.

There is something slightly inconsistent about this line of argument. If you accept that helvetica’s popularity arouse because of its neutrality, because it can be employed anywhere and because it doesn’t distort the meaning that is written in it, then it’s hard to later pin an association on to it, without having to claim that exactly what made it popular is also partially false.

Perhaps it was more its own neutrality that led to a decline in popularity. If you can project any meaning into it, and people were looking for a lackey of authority, then helvetica becomes an easy anti-establishment target. Its neutrality means you can project your fears onto it without resistance. Suddenly you see it everywhere and it’s watching you. It’s telling you what do. If you’re worried about being bossed around or watched, what better to support your paranoia than something that can’t answer back and is everywhere?

The film is a great exploration of the meaning a font can take on and well worth watching. One item that felt a little missing was a comparison to other fonts, something that could have helped explain to the uninitiated just what makes it so special. A few minutes of film explaining to the uninitiated how it looks different to other common fonts would have been a great help.

A brief intro, and to see some of the people that appear in Helvetica, there is a great little PBS Arts short film on Typography.

(1) A ‘font’ is a subset of a typeface, but at a specific size and or font-family (bold, regular, italic etc). So ‘12-point Helvetica’ and ‘11-point Helvetica’ are two different fonts, but the same typeface. Back when printing was done with bits of metal this was a very important distinction so you didn’t accidentally painstakingly arrange a page in the wrong blocks. Now with infinitely scalable digital typography font and typeface have become mostly synonymous.
(2) The most famous is a 1976 article from the Village Voice by Leslie Savan titled “This Typeface is Changing Your Life”.