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Significant Type

What's in a typeface? Designers have heartfelt answers.

wandering into type


A documentary called Helvetica has come out. The title has made most people I've mentioned it to laugh, which indicates how many people are familiar with the Helvetica typeface, for one thing. If a movie came out that was called Baskerville, just as a random example, the title would elicit a blank response from most non-designers. Like the designers interviewed, I can go on a long road talking about type and have a strong view on Helvetica too. I'm of the “not” school. I love sans serif (without curly edges) type but admire so many other typefaces more (Futura, Univers and newer creations such as Agenda). What's really eye-opening about the film, though, is that it shows how ubiquitous this one face has become. 

Designers tend to be word conscious. Most graphic designers love the power of words; they are communicators, not just image creators. The iconic practitioners speaking in this film (Neville Brody, Paula Scher, Erik Spiekermann, Massimo Vignelli, Jonathan Hoefler, Tobias Frere-Jones and many others) made me realize that part of the clout (good and bad) of Helvetica is that you don't notice it specifically as type. It's purposely in the background.

One person pointed out that advertising lures people in by creating a mood first and then delivering its “sell” punch. Helvetica is unobtrusive so you may not know “what hit you,” aiding the sometimes subversive nature of ads and perhaps making mega corporations seem innocuous when they can be perceived as diabolical. This doesn't mean you can't play with it, as you can with any typeface. (I did my part above and incorporated part of the art from one of my rug designs designs inside the main word.)

“In favor” users love that it doesn't get in the way of a message. Artists who dislike it see it as lifeless, unimaginative and bland. It is used for hundreds of corporate identity systems; I love to create corporate identities but want them to have personality; the Helvetica solution is a cop-out, to my way of thinking. The movie shows countless varying examples of the type being used. It does a good job of covering contrary viewpoints, although I suspect creator/director Gary Hustwit falls in the “I like it” camp.

If you never thought about the power of typography, this is an eye-opening and amusing piece. And if you think about it all the time, as I do, it still opens your mind to some new and worthwhile ideas, many of which are complex and surprising.

Comments

Excellent post. I know nothing about this stuff, but your insight into typeface is making me much more aware of how important design is to our well being.

Thank you so much! I am so glad anything I have to say about typography could be helpful to someone, let alone an artist like you. Typography is a gorgeous art form and has the unique role of conveying thoughts in words at the same time as looking cool, interesting, odd, uniform etc. etc. Interestingly, both my father and brother were into typography long before I became a graphic designer and used (and still do) to give letters from old letter presses as gifts. So I guess some of this adoration is genetic. But type is for everyone, that's for sure. We all use it and see it and it should be beautiful and functional, as with all things.

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