Tuesday, March 29, 2011

About Helvetica

Helvetica. It's a typeface that is everywhere, a symbol of modernism, as neutral as Switzerland, and very simply, something that we can't seem to ignore in our everyday. The most powerful part of the movie for me was when Mike Parker said, "When you talk about the design of Haas Neue Grotesk or Helvetic, what it's all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape, the figure-ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters, with the black, if you like, with the inked surface. And the Swiss pay more attention to the background, so that the counters and the space between characters just hold the letters. I mean you can't imagine anything moving; it is so firm. It not a letter that bent to shape; it's a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space. It's... oh, it's brilliant when it's done well." I think he followed this quote by something like went like, Helvetica is the best thing since figure-ground relationship done well. That must be sliced bread for the typographer.

The creation of Helvetica owes itself to Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, it initially was called Neue Haas Grotesk, which was obviously more of a mouthful, and almost was called Helvetia, which is the Latin name for Switzerland. The typeface is used in American Apparel, in North Face, on subway and street signs everywhere, on the backs of garbage trucks, it's something that is honestly very ubiquitous to our modern world, and, Erik Spiekermann will argue, is an example of how bad taste is ubiquitous. However, most of the designers featured in this movie do not share Spiekermann's views, through his coaxing German accent, he describes not only his "incurable if not mortal disease" of being a typeomaniac, but how he prefers the rhythm and contrast of other typefaces instead of the more legible but static typeform of Helvetica. This is contrasted by Massimo Vignelli, who prefers his typefaces to read dog, but not to bark. As interesting as it was to understanding the impact of Helvetica in our world, I more enjoyed this movie because I could now put faces and personalities behind these designers, the romance that each person shares with typography, for the beautiful Swiss Modern type posters and designs, for the awe struck value of Will Crouwel's work. I can't explain it, though Helvetica has become so ubiquitous, I admire it's neutrality for it's cleanness, it's ability to take any word or phrase and give me impact not through some sort of handwritten personality per say, but through composition, typographic color, and dynamic layout. Though Helvetica can be a little squat for me, I did appreciate this documentary by Gary Hustwit.

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