Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Keep clear

Last night I went to the ICA cinema to see Helvetica, a documentary about the typeface. No doubt some of you are wondering why I didn't go to see The Bourne Ultimatum instead, but honestly, what would be the point? I'm sure it's well done, but you know, some fisticuffs, some car chases, Matt Damon pulling that face for the whole film... What is the point? Escapism? Well, this is a world where a man sets himself on fire and then drives a Jeep stuffed with gas canisters through the main entrance of an airline terminal. So in what sense is The Bourne Ultimatum escapist?

Whereas immersing yourself in the slightly arcane world of typography is completely delightful. This is a film which makes you look at the world about you in a completely different way. Unless you're the sort of person who obsesses about fonts you probably aren't conscious of the ubiquity of Helvetica. It is the film's task to make you see how widely-used is the type, and explain why this is the case.

Eduard Hoffman and Max Miedinger consciously designed Helvetica in 1957 to be a modern typeface. It is sans serif, with special attention given to the space around the letter. Each letter has a uniformity. It is clear, simple and straightforward. It is a typeface which is ideal for signage, corporate logos and general usage.

Helvetica has been almost ridiculously successful. The film is stuffed full of different usages of the typeface. Corporate logos, concert flyers, t-shirt slogans, posters, shop fronts, road signs and vehicle labels. The rest of the film features a number of designers talking passionately for or against Helvetica. These contributions are nicely judged: everybody cares deeply about typography but demonstrates an awareness that this might make them seem slightly unhinged.

It is just a joy to listen to articulate intelligent people talk about a topic with passion and humour. Michael Beirut has a fantastic riff on the parlous state of fifties advertising with its jumble of typefaces (especially "nuptial") scripts, goofy logos and lots! of! exclamation! marks! Jonathan Hoefler, pondering the difficulty of evaluating Helvetica, says it's like having an opinion about off-white paint. Inevitably the people who are against Helvetica have the best lines. Erik Spiekermann says he hates Helvetica because it doesn't break any rules, despite the fact that he's German and he likes rules. Paula Scher started designing in the seventies and regarded liking Helvetica in the same league as supporting the Vietnam war. "And the current war?" prompts the interviewer. "Helvetica caused the Iraq war!" she laughs.

Stefan Sagmeister rails against the corporate brochure whose front page consists of lots of white space, with six lines of Helvetica-set text, a small quirky logo in the bottom right hand corner and a picture of a business man. It says "Don't read me. I will bore the shit out of you." I have a lot of sympathy for this view. (Disclosure: LCMG is a company which specifies Helvetica for its corporate publications).

My favourite anecdote came from David Carson, of Raygun magazine. He describes how he was faced with laying out an excruciatingly banal interview with Bryan Ferry. He went through hundreds of fonts trying to find the ideal one to express his feelings for this interview. Finally, at the end of the alphabet, up came Zapf Wingding. Perfect. He showed us the double page spread. A photo of Ferry and - apart from the singer's name in the title - all the text was set in the wingding font. He said we could highlight all the text and convert it to another font - Helvetica? - but we shouldn't bother: it's not worth reading.

As IT people we use fonts all the time: in GUI boilerplate, in documentation, in PowerPoint slides. How often do we actively consider which font to use instead of just accepting the defaults? Well, I expect most of us like to use a mono-spaced font such as Courier when we are programming or including code samples in documents. But beyond that IT is a dreary world of Arial and Times New Roman. Helvetica is a film which tries to communicate why that is a bad thing, why typeface matters and why we should take the time to choose the right one for the task.

Last word. Most of the designers had computers on their desks. Every single desktop or laptop - regardless of whether its owner loved Helvetica's clean simplicity or loathed its corporate conformity - was the same brand. You know which one. I just hope Steve Jobs coughed up some sponds for all that product placement.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Andy C said...

What would be the point ?

A wide range to choose from but 12 point would be my preference :-)

Sorry - I'll get my coat.

12 September 2007 02:40:00 GMT-7  
Blogger Gary Myers said...

"Most of the designers had computers on their desks. Every single desktop or laptop was the same brand."
Interesting. All these designers telling us which fonts look best, using machines that render the font differently from the PC on most peoples' desks.
See
http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2007/06/12.html

12 September 2007 13:35:00 GMT-7  
Blogger APC said...

>> Interesting. All these designers
>> telling us which fonts look best,
>> using machines that render the
>> font differently from the PC on
>> most peoples' desks.

Yes but these designers are using fonts to design books, posters, corporate signage, and by and large not computer screens. So using an approach to computer typefaces which relates well to how the finished product will look makes sense. I just thought at the complete domination of Apple was ironic.

Cheers, APC

13 September 2007 00:44:00 GMT-7  
Blogger William Robertson said...

> How often do we actively consider which font to use instead of just accepting the defaults?

With any new text editor I always go straight to the Preferences and change Courier (yuk) to Lucida Console (or Andale Mono or Monaco on the Mac). Lucida Sans makes a nice boilerplate/menu font. For documents, I've been going through a Trebuchet MS phase, but I recently came across Expert Sans Light for work documents (PC only).

16 September 2007 01:54:00 GMT-7  
Blogger William Robertson said...

> So in what sense is The Bourne Ultimatum escapist?

I'm guessing the hero is up against bad guys who can be fought and who have motives that can be understood, in a world with consequence-free explosions and car chases. Out on DVD 10th December ;)

16 September 2007 11:11:00 GMT-7  
Blogger William Robertson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

17 September 2007 08:51:00 GMT-7  
Blogger APC said...

>> the hero is up against bad guys >> who can be fought and who have
>> motives that can be understood,
>> in a world with consequence-free
>> explosions and car chases.
>> Out on DVD 10th December ;)

Okay but I think I'll wait until they release The Bourne Typography

Cheers, APC

18 September 2007 09:24:00 GMT-7  

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