The Angry Grammarian

Where Helvetica is king.

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jan. 7, 2009

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A font walks into a bar. The bartender says, "We don't serve your type in here," and he calls the serif.

For some people, Helvetica is more than just the default font on old Macs and PCs. It's a way of life.

"I'm always interested in clarity," says modernist designer Wim Crouwel in the documentary Helvetica, premiering this week on WHYY. "It should be clear. It should be readable. It should be straightforward."

Sound familiar? They're the same rules that govern all the best copyediting. Average readers underestimate how big an effect good type treatment can have on the reading experience, just as they underestimate good copyediting.

Helvetica, a surprisingly engrossing film about the font's ubiquity, goes a long way in showing Helvetica's reach across the world. Tax forms from the IRS are written in Helvetica. So are the words "United States" on the side of NASA shuttles. Same with New York subway signs. More logos than you can count: Target. Staples. American Apparel. Crate & Barrel. AmericanAirlines.

You'll notice this paragraph, written in Helvetica, is a shade different from the rest of the column, which you're reading in Interstate Light--a direct descendant of Helvetica (unless you're reading this online, in which case, God only knows what cockamamie default font you have). Helvetica is a little heavier, its lowercase "e" and "a" more closed.

Does one look more or less readable? Font stylists get heated about how much personality a type should have, and Helvetica gives voice to both those who adore the font's simplicity and those who--no kidding--think it was responsible for the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

"I don't think type should be expressive at all," says Massimo Vignelli, who chose Helvetica for New York's subway signage in 1966. "I can write the word 'dog' with any typeface and it doesn't have to look like a dog. But there are people that when they write 'dog,' it should bark."

We always say the best editors are the ones most invisible to the readers. I'm sure Vignelli would say the same of typesetters. So where's the copy editors' documentary?


Helvetica airs Thurs., Jan. 8, 9pm. WHYY TV-12

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1. Bob Talarczyk said... on Jan 10, 2009 at 08:30AM

“(this email was originally sent to the creators of Helvetica (the film) October 6, 2008....Swiss Dots, London with no response) HELVETICA This email is in response to the seeing the film, Helvetica. To The Helvetica Film Team: I recently had the pleasure of watching your movie, Helvetica, and I thought that it was very good overall. However, never once was Geigy Pharmaceutical and its top graphic design team (many now in Helvetica Heaven like Fred Troller, Theo Welti, Marcus Lowe and many others.) mentioned in the role that Helvetica played in the worldwide corporate identity (Branding) that Geigy created using Helvetica. (In the beginning Geigy originally had an exclusive contractual agreement for the use of Helvetica to my knowledge) Geigy literally wrote the book on Corporate/Brand Identity through their in-house design group both in Basel and in the U.S. which many others followed throughout the world and in many cases still follow. We all have creative license to create history as we choose and that is very acceptable here in the colonies, but to have the Swiss designers who were interviewed in your film leave Geigy out is astonishing. All the designers interviewed missed a valuable part of Graphic Design History by leaving out the incredible Graphic Design movement at Geigy, Basel. There has been nothing like it since. Maybe you were aware of this or maybe it was edited out.... but unfortunately many young and growing designers have lost a valuable piece of inspiring graphic design/type history desperately needed in today's industry. Geigy In-House Design ( design/copy standards continued through the merger of Ciba & Geigy ) played a very important role in the use of Helvetica globally in setting Swiss Design standards including the grid, flush left, copy setting and copy writing standards. Most of all, when design©= concept, the audience would actually be GRABBED by the combination of graphic+headline and would actually READ stunning copy in an era of perfection and creativity when design© ruled. In my opinion, you had the opportunity to preserve a fabulous movement in global graphic design© concept guided by Helvetica. Clean & Simple... when marketing wasn't a department and design& copy had a godfather... or today when creativity and democracy = mediocrity. Thanks, Bob Talarczyk, Creative Director/CEO Darkhorse Design, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA Former Design Director, Producer Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals,U.S.A. ”

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