The Shy Quiet Type

Clicking on your Fonts drop down menu in Word or Excel will give you a little preview of the back stories to be found in the documentary Helvetica. We get a look at the origins not just of the title typeface but background on such favorites as Georgia, Gotham, Verdana, even the seldom used but always good for a laugh Zapf Dingbats.

The producers use the staple documentary approach of giving the story an emotional arch, but they go further in practically presenting Helvetica as a persona. We begin the film with testimonials celebrating the appearance of this clean cut individual who breathed fresh air into layouts. Eventually voices of dissent start to trickle in and the resistance moves into action. It reminded me surprisingly of the progression of Errol Morris’ film Mr. Death and less surprisingly of the “but they were headed for a fall” style of VH1’s Behind the Music.

Just as art movements react to their forebears before becoming the establishment to be toppled in their turn, typographers eventually began to read all kinds of nasty associations into Helvetica, the ubiquitous type of commerce and municipal signage. What is interesting is that so much of the film is taken up by typographers describing all the meanings that are inherent in the design of the letters, frozen signals that radiate calm, casual friendliness. They stress the ways that meaning can be embedded in the design itself that sends a particular message regardless of its eventual use.

Yet it’s clear that they often become victims of their own creations, that the font begins to be absorbed into its context and like a phosphorescent species of flora digesting chemicals in its environment to produce light, emits suggestions based on its associations rather than its design. Interestingly, the typographers reaction to the font varies largely based on when they encountered it. It’s as if all of us carry along with us understandings embedded in a specific time frame that we carry along with us through our lives.

The film also tries to emphasize the ubiquity of Helvetica and certainly after watching this film your eyes will tend to gravitate toward city and commercial signage more than you are probably accustomed to doing. I spent the following week pointedly examining all of the store fronts on my morning bus ride and if anything I was surprised at how little of it was Helvetica. San Francisco still hearts the serif. The observation that it is a particularly “urban” typeface seems to be pretty well borne out however. I saw it most often present in big brand name advertising, street signs and public transit lettering.

Having taken more than a few Roman Archaeology classes in college, I’m surprised to discover that there is very little familial relationship between Helvetica and Latin inscriptions. My imperfect judgment and memory considered that engraving would necessitate the most unadorned of font styles. Chisels be damned, the Romans preferred the serif!

Revolutions in type, like revolutions in art tend to follow the American model. They do not so much overturn as they do supplant. There is always the chance that someone will come along to view them with a fresh eye, to restore the figurative in the face of the proliferation of abstract expressionism for example, to make the old seem new again.


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