Saturday, September 29, 2007

Helvetica, the documentary

Helvetica is everywhere. Born of post-war idealism, it represented for its creators, disseminators and users rationality, clarity, accessibility, transparency, and accountability. Above all, it was seen as modern; it was the still usable part of modernism. At the same time, the font was seen as neutral. It had no ideological designs on the words, but conveyed the content like clear plastic wrap. I was intrigued by this apparent contradiction between modernity and neutrality, or how one was seen by postwar designers as almost the equivalent of the other. Helvetica, from the Latin word for Switzerland, Helvetia, is a Swiss font.

In the eyes of its detractors, Helvetica is the font of bureaucracy and corporations. IRS uses it on its forms, as do American Airlines and Target for their names. In the 1970s, the rejection of Helvetica was a form of protest against the Vietnam War. The pendulum swings, and now some designers adopt Helvetica, but with some personal variations. Innovation, instead of revolution. The real interest of the documentary lies in the ways a font can become a site for ideological contest.


Charlie MaGhee said...

Hmn... do my eyes mistake me or are you encapsulating your thoughts on Helvetica in Helvetica?

I wonder what topsy-turvy ideological turf are you claiming with that move....


It reveals my snobbish brick & ivy secret shame all too clearly but at least with grace-- I'm a bit of a Baskerville girl.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Charlie,
I'm not so tricky dicky to do that. Blogger does not give the Helvetica option. Although my Helvetica would date your Baskerville any time.