Thursday, September 13, 2007

The clean, cool icon of modernism, or the sleek, sinister accomplice of hegemonic globalization?


Love it or hate it, there's no denying that Helvetica is everywhere, as a random screenshot from Google Image suggests. The type font is 50 years old this year, an anniversary that's marked by a documentary that opened in New York this week, named eponymously, "Helvetica."

It made the rounds at film festivals earlier, and the Toronto Star ran a thoughtful essay on both the film and the typeface, which was created in 1957 by the Haas Type Foundry.
Edouard Hoffmann, the foundry's director, asked Max Miedinger to update Akzidenz Grotesk, a popular typeface created in 1896. The result was Neue Haas Grotesk, which debuted to little fanfare in 1957. Swiss-school design emphasized order and linearity, a mandate compatible with Helvetica's austere look and feel.

Four years later, at the behest of Mergenthaler Linotype (Haas's parent company), the name was changed to Helvetica (Helvetia is Latin for Switzerland) as part of a marketing plan to sell the typeface internationally. The new name was meant to leverage the growing popularity of Swiss design, and it worked. Ad agencies, and anyone else seeking to imbue their posters or products with 1960s cosmopolitanism, used the typeface, and by the 1980s it was everywhere, thanks in part to the fact that Helvetica came bundled with the first Macintosh computers.
It seems ironic that Helvetica, known for its cosmopolitan elegance and look of linear rationalism, caught on during the stoned decade of the sixties, when linear thinking was not exactly universally admired. From the beginning, Helvetica has been associated with corporate communications and international business. You might call it the typeface of globalization. What are the prospects for its next 50 years?
Perhaps the most relevant benchmark of typographic success is sheer perseverance. Will Helvetica survive another 50 years? Maybe. Frutiger is starting to replace Helvetica in many business contexts. And designers are hardly unanimous about its appeal. In Muller's Helvetica, Wolfgang Weingart describes the typeface as "the epitome of ugliness," while Keith Godard suggests, "like a beautiful person, it often lacks personality." Rick Poyner, meanwhile, complains of its "bloodless neutrality," a rather fitting comment to be making about a Swiss typeface.

Regardless of its future, Helvetica has left its marks on modernity.

"I think it's changed the world, but probably in a very subtle way that most people wouldn't realize or even care about, frankly," explains filmmaker Hustwit. "When you're parking your car, and you want to know whether you can park in a certain spot or not, you just want to get that information quickly and clearly."
As for me, if I have to use a sans serif font, I'll stick to Arial on my computer, Frutiger in print. There is something just a little too clean and bland and smug about Helvetica, though if you put it on a diet, some of the condensed fonts aren't too bad.

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