When I was 19-years-old, I decided I wanted to be a graphic artist. It was actually during a drawing class that I became convinced that I needed to be a visual artist. I suppose I could have pursued fine art, but ultimately I was compelled by one thing: typography. Where do these graphic forms come from? Why do we use these iconographic images to communicate? How can typography (and other images) be used best to express the content of the message? These were and are still the most important questions of graphic design!
This brings me to the topic of my post. I just watched the documentary film, Helvetica directed by Gary Hustwit. As described on the film website, it is “a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture.” Although the movie was made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the modern and ubiquitous typeface family, it is something of a primer for all of us: it helps to connect the desktop, Internet and social media generations with the bigger picture of visual communications history and theory.
Helvetica is indeed everywhere and the movie shows this with its rich visuals of daily life in countries around the world. But the film is very important for its review of the changes in the twentieth century that first led to the creation of Helvetica as an international standard, later saw a movement against it and now, in the age of online communications, has seen something of a renaissance. Perhaps the movie itself is part of the renewed appreciation in the twenty-first century of this breakthrough font.
Helvetica is the quintessential modern, sans serif typeface and it is connected with the strivings of the design community in the 1950s for something new and global in character. As designer Massimo Vignelli explains, “When Helvetica came about we were all ready for it. It just had all the right connotations that we were looking for. For anything that had to spell out loud and clear: Modern.”
Helvetica was developed jointly by Swiss type designers Eduard Hoffman and Max Miedinger at the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland in 1957. It was originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk. Since Haas was owned by Linotype and subject to the marketing interests of the large corporation, the name was later changed to Helvetica. In order to sell the font particularly in America, Hoffman and Miedinger agreed to change the name to an alteration of the Latin word for Switzerland (Helvetia), i.e. Helvetica is literally: The Swiss Typeface. The film includes an interview with Alfred Hoffman, son of Eduard, reviewing the specification sheets and hand written notations from the type design process. Hoffman, although he has gotten less credit for Helvetica than his partner, is revealed in the film as having had a clarity of vision with regard to the appearance and aesthetics of the form.
Several of those interviewed explain that the runaway attraction of Helvetica for the graphic design community, especially for corporate identity in the 1960s, was its simplicity and neutrality. Helvetica is the cameleon of graphic communications; it can be used to embody the identity of almost any concept or organization. It can also be equally used to communicate simple public information and is very often used in directional signage. Soon almost everyone was using Helvetica to transform their look and cast away the remnants of the premodern world. The film then illustrates the impact of the font on US and European corporations; the number of companies that adopted it appears substantial and shocking even for someone like myself who pays attention to such matters.
But, as the movie also clearly shows, Helvetica—and the rules of typography as they had come to be understood—eventually came under attack by notions of postmodernism. This took the form of a rejection of the structure, clarity and rules that were the bedrock of the design of Helvetica. The critics said that typography itself does indeed need to convey something more than the meaning of the words they express; some even said that the type needs to have its own message and the meaning of the words are of little consequence. In the backlash, Helvetica was said to have become identified with safety, conformism and predictability in design. Helvetica and its sense of structure was the dull and conservative background noise that had to be displaced by more expressive forms.
The counter-culture began in the 1970s as the postmodernists circumvented what they perceived as the boredom of Helvetica with things like illustrated typography. Veering in the direction of fine art, type began to take on many different chaotic forms. Experimental works that pushed the limits of legibility were the rage. Postmodernist design was also enabled by the technological revolution of the personal computer, where the structured principles of type design were violated by anyone who felt like it. With that went the business of typography; Adobe, Apple and Microsoft became the bearers of the intellectual property of generations of type designers going back to Gutenberg.
The theory of the postmodernists, or lack thereof, is expressed most clearly in the film by David Carson whose work became popular in the 1980s and world-renowned in the 1990s. Known as the father of “grunge design” Carson says, “I have no formal training in the field. In my case, I never learned all the things I wasn’t supposed to do. I was doing the things that made sense to me. I was just experimenting … I didn’t understand why people were getting so upset … only much later did I learn what the terms ‘modernism’ and this and that.” While the aestheticism Carson represents may be good at conveying visual atmospherics, it is not effective for typographic communications; it is all about impact through anticommunication (if that is even a word).
Fortunately, and I think naturally, the deconstructionist approach could not predominate. With the development of the online publishing and the pixel grid of the computer display, typography has moved back more closely to rationality. While it is certainly possible to find poor typography on the web, there is an awareness and sensitivity among a growing group of us about what is good, effective and appropriate use of type. As is pointed out at the end of the film, social networks are now playing a role in the development of new and innovative approaches to typography. The growth of the networked mobile device will certainly also contribute to this evolution.
I am the last to argue that the history of typography ends with Helvetica. However, it appears that things went off-the-rails for a period and we are now somewhere between 1957 and the next great step in the evolution of typography beyond Helvetica. Perhaps we will see something that dovetails with tiny URLs, texting and 140 character limits.