Helvetica

>> Sunday, June 8, 2008

I finally took the time to watch this last night. I've had this sitting on my tv for at least two months, if not longer, with a small stack of other dvds. I read about this in Entertainment Weekly, and then put it on my list. It's part art history, part social commentary and part design insight. And full of montages featuring the many uses of Helvetica.

The social commentary generally is mixed in with each interview and each interviewee's perspective on Helvetica. Leslie Savan, a media writer,

"Governments and corporations love Helvetica because on one hand it makes them seem neutral and efficient, but also the smoothness of the letters makes them seem almost human. That is a quality they all want to convey because of course they have the image they are always fighting that they are authoritarian, they're bureaucratic, you lose yourself in them, they're oppressive. So instead, by using Helvetica they can come off seeming more accessible, transparent and accountable, which are all the buzzwords for what corporations and governments are supposed to be today. Now they don't have to be accessible or accountable or transparent, but they can look that way."
A pretty radical statement to some people, but completely logical given the amount of doublespeak that has occurred since the growth of the advertising industry in the past century. I know of someone who does not know how to read subtext at all. He does not know how to analyze beyond the surface of given statements. I think much of the subtext of modern graphic design reminds me of the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times, Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese calligraphy. Such as in Egyptian hieroglyphics, if a certain character was red it had one meaning; if it was green, it had another meaning. Something that those who only read that it's the same "character" completely miss. They miss the subtext and deeper meaning of it all.

My favorite moment was the interview with Erik Spiekermann.
"No, actually, Helvetica was a good typeface at the time. It really answered a demand. But now it's become one of those defaults that, partly because of the proliferation of the computer, which is now twenty years, the PC I mean, it was the default on the Apple Macintosh and then it became the default on Windows which copied everything that Apple did, as you know. Interface and everything else, and then they did the clone version, Arial, which is worse than Helvetica but fills the same purpose I think. Now it's probably never going to go away because it's ubiquitous; it's a default. It's air, you know, it's just there. There's no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica."
Fucking Arial. I can't stand it. One of the benefits of working in my current department is having access to a few hundred extra fonts in Microsoft Office suite that other departments in the company don't get. I tend to change my email default fonts about every 10 months to a year. Currently, I'm using 11 pt ZapfHumnst BT, which, ironically, I can't stand at 12 pt because I think it looks gross. Even though my department has access to tons of fonts, two of my coworkers, which is one-third of our department, use Arial as their email font. Grr!! I hate it when one of them sends me an email in 10 pt Arial. I feel like, "Don't EVEN send me an email unless you can bother to change your font to something more original." Needless to say, after having watched this, I'm going to have to change my font on Monday to something new. Just another way to procrastinate at work. (Of course, the font on this blog is Helvetica, but I don't have the time to change it.)
Spiekermann: "If all these people have the tools to make good design, they realize it ain't that easy. It's not just opening a template in Corel Draw or in PowerPoint."
When the film got towards the end on the democratization of design, I could relate to what the designers were talking about when just because technology has made it easier for folks to have the tools, it doesn't mean that most people can design. Case in point is the admin who did a flyer and used four completely different fonts. It was atrocious to look at. I'm not a designer, but some of my coworkers are. I've had to listen to HR demonstrate that they don't know the difference between a designer and someone who creates complex documents in Word.
David Carson: "It's not about having the latest version of whatever program. If you don't have the eye, if you don't have a sense of design, the program's not going to give it to you."
To some it's just a semantic difference, but when HR is making decisions on what pay scale you should be slotted in, that lack of awareness makes a big difference.

Erik Spiekermann was my favorite in the film, if it isn't already apparent. He managed to get in a version of one of my favorite quotes from Superman: The Movie: "Why does the phone always ring when you're in the bathtub?"
Interviewer: Why is it [Helvetica] fifty years later still so popular?
Spiekermann: I don't know. Why is bad taste ubiquitous?
The end of the Spiekermann interview was the highlight for me because they took his comments, interspersed it with a montage of corporate logos and ads and then ended it with some great comments by Neville Brody.
Spiekermann: "Because all the letters...it's the whole Swiss ideology; the guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same. Hello??? You know, that's called an army. That's not people. That's people having the same fucking helmet on. It doesn't further individualism. And the aim with type design always is to make it individual enough so that it's interesting, but of course nintey-five percent of any alphabet has to look like the other alphabet otherwise you wouldn't be able to read it."

"Why do people buy certain things? The brand rubs off on them. And typefaces are a brand. You're telling an audience, 'This is for you,' by using a certain typographic voice. You'd recognize a Marlboro brand two miles away because they use a typeface that they only use. You can buy it; I have it; anyone can, it's called Neo Contact. Anybody can buy it, but Marlboro have made the typeface theirs. You can recognize any Marlboro ad from miles away because of that stupid typeface. If they'd used Helvetica... Hello??? It wouldn't quite work."

[Corporate ad montage]

Brody: "The way something is presented will define the way you react to it. So you can take the same message and present it in three different typefaces, and the response to that, the immediate emotional response will be different. And the choice of typeface is the prime weapon, if you want, in that communication. And I say weapon largely because with commercial marketing and advertising, the way the message is dressed is going to define our reaction to that message in the advertising. So if it says, buy these jeans, and it's a grunge font, you would expect it to be some kind of ripped jeans or to be sold in some kind of underground clothing store. If you see that same message in Helvetica, you know, it's probably on sale at Gap. You know it's going to be clean, that you're going to fit in, you're not going to stand out."

"In a way, Helvetica is a club. It's a mark of membership; it's a badge that says we're part of modern society, we share the same ideals. It's well-rounded, it's not going to be damaging or dangerous."
Translation: Helvetica is the hive mind, Borg.


2 comments:

Janel B 08 June, 2008 16:28  

I once had Helvetica checked out from Netflix, but I never got around to watching it. Certainly mean to.

I always find it interesting how people don't realize how design affects how people react to things. Sounds like at least one of the quotes reinforces this.

On the other hand, I must say that Helvetica is very successful from a usability standpoint. It's a font that's easy to read, so it makes sense to use it for a lot of communications.

House of Brat 08 June, 2008 20:04  

I do think Helvetica is very easy to read. It's perfectly designed in that respect. But I dislike how it's used EVERYWHERE. I think some corporations such as Crate & Barrel could have come up with better logo had they used a font/typeface other than Helvetica.

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