Give 'Em Helvetica

Karen Shimizu

The famed font aspires to eerie emptiness of meaning. Now, has it persuaded us to do the same?


Director: Gary Hustwit
Cast: David Carson, Erik Spiekermann
Distributor: Plexifilm
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2007

What do American Airlines, American Apparel, The Office, Target, and the Environmental Protection Agency have in common? The unassuming typeface Helvetica, which turned 50 last year. Designed by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann in Switzerland (Helvetica means Swiss in Latin), the font became the predominant typeface for the rest of the 20th century, as Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary Helvetica thoroughly demonstrated.

The Museum of Modern Art also celebrated the font's anniversary with a show, "50 Years of Helvetica". Exhibiting the font alongside furniture and forks in the museum made the point that the typeface is a well-designed tool, like the objects nearby: a cluster of pill-shaped lamps, a lime-green helicopter. Yet because a typeface is a vehicle for language and, by extension, for thought, Helvetica begged for more scrutiny than the adjacent upholstered puzzle-chair, which merely offered a surface upon which to recline. As part of the exhibit, a dozen posters showcasing the font were hung, all from 1957 to 1967, all slowly turning an archival yellow, giving them a distant, reliquary feel. But even with the patina, it was hard not to feel the pull of the typeface. The steep slopes, generous curves, and balance of negative-to-positive space transmitted a steady calm, like so much blonde wood and brushed steel.

Alongside Helvetica specimens, the MoMA show displayed examples of Akzidenz Grotesk, the 1896 font that Helvetica’s designers used as a point of departure. Alternating between two versions of a lowercase ‘a,’ even the untrained eye could eventually coax out the subtle differences, the way the white space around Helvetica’s letter hugged the shape in an uninterrupted, backwards ‘s’ curve, while Akzidenz had a slight hiccough where alpha’s belly distended like a full water skin. One could also see the way Helvetica’s terminals (the ends of the letter ‘c’, for example) ended in steady horizontal lines, whereas Akzidenz’s formed jaunty angles, as though the terminals were fencing. Where Akzidenz was just a little bit cheeky, Helvetica was neutral; where Akzidenz had edges, Helvetica flowed smoothly; where Akzidenz was severe, Helvetica was soft; where Akzidenz was attention-grabbing, Helvetica was self-effacing.

Helvetica is a Teflon typeface: nothing sticks to it. Its appeal lies in how it doesn’t interrupt one's perception of what it spells out. In Hustwit’s film, some of the graphic designers and critics interviewed -- Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwell, Michael Beriut among them -- genuflect before the font on its 50th anniversary. All around us yet practically invisible (at least for nondesigners), Helvetica is now so ubiquitous that, in Beriut’s words, “It seems like air; it seems like gravity". The film suggests that Helvetica has become the preferred typeface of powerful entities -- like Consolidated Edison and the IRS, for example -- that seek to convey a neutral, friendly public image. The font is the modern face of instructions, commands, and warnings, and Helvetica’s presence is so mild that even phrases like "Do Not Enter," "Nuclear Fallout Shelter," and "Danger High Voltage" read as blandishments, with no feeling of warning, personality, or command. In the words of the MoMA curators, it is “universal, neutral, and undeniably modern,” and without any personality of its own. Companies use the typeface’s neutral contours to say “don’t think of us as corporate,” or maybe, “don’t think of us at all.”

All this emptiness is creepy, especially once Hustwit has drawn our attention to how much of the landscape is sown with Swiss design. The fetishization of empty doesn’t end with corporate logos and magazine copy: our individual aesthetic -- how we style ourselves -- has increasingly come to mirror the assiduously clean slate that Helvetica embodies.

In Helvetica, design critic Rick Poyner points to the proliferation of social-networking websites as examples of where people “are using graphic design to express their individuality.” But what individuality, if any, can a person express if their user profile is aesthetically identical to millions of others in the social network? On Facebook, profile pages can’t help but look good. A tidy layout and inflexible color scheme suspends each user profile in an easy-on-the-eyes matrix of slate-blue font -- Helvetica -- and ample white space. An aesthetic identity by Facebook, like an apartment furnished by Ikea and Pottery Barn, or a wardrobe by H&M and American Apparel, is self-limiting and safe. You don’t have to have good taste: designers have it for you.

When our online personae -- whether Second Life avatars or profile pages – are locked into a framework of well-designed perfection, adopting ugly or poorly-designed phenomena feels like a minor act of rebellion. Whereas people over 25 are the fastest growing demographic of Facebook users, teenagers overwhelmingly flock to MySpace, where users can put up their own background images, font colors, and a hash of other multimedia variables. The resulting profile pages are an eclectic, jarring, cacophony of design: a retina-scorching hodge-podge of neon green text over animated kitten wallpaper. (Similarly, the popularity of garish footwear, from Uggs to Crocs -- each synonymous in its own way, with ugly -- to this season’s candle-snuffer-heeled line of designer shoes from Prada, don’t signal a shift in sensibility so much as the vaguely illicit pleasure people get from flouting aesthetic propriety.)

In a 1993 article, “The Cult of the Ugly,” Steven Heller -- a prolific design critic and a onetime art director at the New York Times -- traced the current backlash against clean design to the 1970s, when deliberately cacophonous typography and design (influenced by, among other things, the British punk scene) upended the carefully modulated graphic language of Modernism. Looking at the work of Art Chantry, whose posters and album covers for Seattle underground music scene were jarring but gorgeous, Heller declared that the helter-skelter, rough-edged aesthetic of anti-modernist design “meant to shock an enemy -- complacency -- as well as to encourage new reading and viewing patterns.” In the hands of gifted designers, objects chock-a-block with ragged fonts, warped grids, and harsh color palettes -- all anathemas to Modernism -- challenged viewers to adapt to a new design system.

But a major difference exists between the jangling millions of MySpace profiles and the work of Art Chantry; the former are not ugly by design, they’re just badly designed. They do not aspire to a revolution in sensibility. Within the context of the system, are as conformist and self-obfuscating as any preppy social climber’s immaculate Facebook page.

So where does that leave us?

In Helvetica, the strongest statement about the font's place in the American landscape comes in the form of praise from Bierut. “It must have felt so good to take something crappy and homemade and replace it with Helvetica,” he says, imagining the freedom of being able to shed, at last, “the horrible burden of history.”

But now Helvetica has become the burden of history. Modernist design continues to appeal to commercial designers because it continues to appeal to consumers, and it appeals to consumers because its vacancy is reassuring. Its modern contours shunt off the past, pandering to our desire to avert our gaze from our vexing individual and collective histories, from the dirt that we track from our dangling roots.

In Helvetica, Neville Brody, a British graphic designer, sums up the typeface’s core appeal. “If it says it in Helvetica, it’s going to be clean, you’re going to fit in, you’re not going to stand out.” The ongoing popularity of Helvetica and the broader emphasis on uniform, euphonious design has its social corollary in the muting of personal quirks -- regional accents, stable political viewpoints, awkward passions. Rather than “letting it all hang out,” we keep it all in. The flavor of the font is the flavor of the age.

Karen Shimizu is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. She writes about whatever catches her fancy from beneath her bed in Brooklyn.

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