What the Helvetica?

art: lauradelean

A while back, I caught a documentary on PBS about the typeface (font) called Helvetica.  My roommate recently rented it, and I got to catch some things I missed the last time I saw it.  You wouldn’t think a documentary about a typeface would be very interesting (and maybe after seeing it for yourself, you still wouldn’t), but I thought it was fascinating.  It focuses on Helvetica, but it’s actually about typography in general and how we as individuals and societies are affected by what we see.  For example, from a designer’s perspective (and apparently from yours and mine, too) the balance of the content of words in an ad and the way those words look makes a world of difference in a consumer’s reaction to the ad.  This is a fundamental principle.  The way Helvetica looks and communicates, and its unprecedented, unmatched presence in ads and on the street over the last 50 years earned it the spotlight in this documentary.

Of particular interest to me was the correlation between typography and the phenomena of modernism and post-modernism.  These terms are hard to define because they are labels given to two cultural world views of the global West.  Broadly speaking, modernism is characterized by achievement, the mastering of the world around us, the creating of exactly the kind of appliances, automobiles, and country we could ever hope for.  It’s ordered.  It’s scientific discovery for the sake of classifying; it’s advancement in technology for the sake of conquering.  Enter Helvetica.  The field of typography had yet to catch up to the modern world around it.  The products in ads were modernist – the result of order, planning, and streamlining.  It was time a typeface communicated that.  Helvetica came out of Switzerland in 1957 and exploded into magazines, corporate logos, and street signs.

With modernism so perfectly exemplified in the 1950’s, the 1960’s turned to embrace post-modernism, a reaction that [rightly] critiqued the arrogance of modernism but often in immature and unproductive ways.  Post-modernism sees itself as a liberation from oppressive, unnatural systems of control.  It embraces free expressions of varying opinions, as long as they’re not the opinions of the Establishment.  It’s about originality, but often for the sake of stickin’ it to the conventions.  In this atmosphere, Helvetica is perceived as the typeface of the government, the corporation, the oppressor, the “man.”  Helvetica was cast off in favor of freely drawn letters or extremely altered, customized fonts — at least by some designers.

Helvetica has continued to thrive despite the reactions against it and what it stands for.  Part of the reason for this is that it now stands for far more than it used to.  It is now not only the vehicle of conformity, but also of nonconformity.  Billboards, posters, and other platforms are using Helvetica to spread messages of individualism, crisply and clearly.  Why not communicate the flaky, scattered ideas of post-modernism with the relentless efficiency afforded by modernism?  This interesting twist in the use of a typeface made me think about a larger truth.  In a sense, post-modernism is using the tools of modernism to accomplish its own mission.  This is the world we’re living in today — where pockets of modernists produce and get rich from technologies which masses of post-modernists, or at least those indebted to a post-modern rationale, use to condemn the modernists (think communications industry).  It’s a swirl of confusion, irony, and contradiction.  This is no place to stay.  I think modernism will always collapse under the weight of its own arrogance.  And the shallow roots of post-modernism may have allowed it to spread like kudzu, but it’s flimsy and won’t support us.  We have to find a way out, beyond modernism, through post-modernism, and out into something new.  Something more mature.  But what’s it gonna be?

And will Helvetica be there?

[For examples of Helvetica and clips from the film, http://www.helveticafilm.com/]

1 thought on “What the Helvetica?

  1. asmendenhall

    Now I must see this! Actually I’ve been reading one of the major postmodern theorists of the 80s and 90s, Jean-Francois Lyotard (who, ironically, writes about postmodernism as the end of grand narratives), and he says something similar––that postmodernism in art, literature, and architecture (and also typefaces, I guess) is a return to or a reworking of modernism. He compares it to a Freudian psychoanalysis session in which we work through the issues of Modernism or reflect on them. Of course he would say your desire to move beyond postmodernism is very modern of you :)
    Anyways, I hope I can get a hold of that documentary…


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