Monday, 19 January 2009

Can a typeface nag?

Can a typeface nag? Paula Scher, herself a typographic designer, thinks so. The Helvetica typeface is for her part of “a conspiracy of my mother’s to remind me to keep my room clean”; Helvetica is a prim governess from whom typeface designers have needed to liberate themselves, too uptight, too corporate, too clean and complacent.

The pics I've taken are Helvetica – I think. It comes in different versions, of course. One clue is supposed to be the horizontal terminals on c, e and s.

The typeface was designed in Switzerland (hence Helvetica) in 1957. It was a manifestation of the need to reconstruct after the war, part of the emergence of a modernist international Swiss style.

In Holland, the designer
Wim Crouwel used Helvetica in designs for stamps, the telephone book and school textbooks. “It was like our mother tongue,” a Dutch commentator remarked.

Image from Wikipedia.

Arial is Microsoft’s Helvetica.

The information here comes from the film
Helvetica by Gary Hustwit (2007).

Lovely images, interesting history, but it’s always fascinating as well to hear the way specialist professionals talk about things we’d find very hard to articulate – e.g. the feel of different typefaces, what a typeface

A couple of designers illustrate how they talk about typefaces: essentially they use metaphor. They’re liable to say things like:

“No, this has that 1975 rocket early NASA feeling. It’s need to have the orange plastic Olivetti typewriter Roman holiday espresso feeling.” (Wonderful how English can use those piled-up nouns as pre-modifiers. It’s a feature that seems totally absent from respectable Victorian prose, like Trollope.)

“It has that belt and suspenders look. It needs to be elegant hand-lasted shoe.”

According to many of the speakers, Helvetica is classic, the last word in a particular line of development. Neutral, democratic, reassuring, solid – those are the sort of words that are used of it.

Which is why many, like
Paula Scher, have revolted against it; hence the Grunge typography of many ‘80s record covers and magazines.

Wim Crouwel says,
“It was neutral and neutral was a word that we loved. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning was in the content of the text.”

Someone else:
"Helvetica all about the negative spaces. The space between the characters holds the letter. You can’t imagine anything moving. It’s so firm. It’s a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space.”

Hmm. Would I have said that?

Michael Bierut, Graphic Designer, holds up a 1950s magazine and describes how typography in that period showed every kind of bad habit:

“You’ve got zany hand lettering everywhere, squashed typography to signify elegance, exclamation points exclamation points exclamation points, cursive wedding invitation typography down here…. This was everywhere in the 50s.”

And on the advent of Helvetica:

"I imagine there was a time when it just felt so good to take stuff that was old, dusty and homemade and crappy-looking and replace it with Helvetica. It just must have felt like you were scraping the crud off filthy old things and restoring them to shining beauty. And in fact corporate identity in the 60s, that’s what it sort of consisted of. You know, clients would come in and they’d have like piles of goofy old brochures from the 50s that had like shapes on them, like goofy bad photographs, they had some letterhead with Amalgamated Widget on the top and some, maybe a script typeface above Amalgamated Widget , it would have like an engraving showing their headquarters, you know, Peduka, Iowa, with smokestacks belching smoke you know.

And then you get a corporate identity consultant c.1965, 1966 and they would take that and lay it here and say ‘Here’s your current stationery and all it implies, and this is what we’re proposing.’ Next to that, next to the belching smokestack and the nuptual [sic] script and the ivory paper they’d have a crisp bright white piece of paper and instead of Amalgamated Widget founded 1867 it just would say, Widgco, in Helvetica Medium.

Can you imagine how bracing and thrilling that was, that must have seemed like you’d crawled through a desert, your mouth just caked with filthy dust, and someone’d offer you a clear refreshing still icy glass of water to clear away all this horrible kind of like burden of history. It must have been fantastic, and you know it must have been fantastic because it was done over and over and over again.”

With Grunge anything went – no rules, no constraints, and in the end nowhere else to go. According to the film, if there’s to be a new classic typeface to replace Helvetica, it hasn’t appeared yet.

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