March 7, 2012

History of a font

A whole 80-minute about font is a bit of a overkill. Nevertheless, I was able to learn something about – not only Helvetica itself – the rules typography and its social construction. The history of how Helvetica came about isn’t as interesting as the meaning it was associated with in that time period.

Helvetica was invented in Switzerland in 1957. Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, it was later changed to Helvetica, which means the Swiss type face. According to the experts who spoke in the movie, this type has a visual wholesomeness about it. It is quite symmetrical across the horizontal axis, and is formed by the (negative) space instead of imposing the line on the background. Like Switzerland in World War II, Helvetica’s most remarkable quality is its neutrality.  

The popularity of Helvetica is more easily explained when one considers the historical context surrounding it. Helvetica was invented after World War II, and associated with the modernist movement, which is an industrial ideal that aspires to functionalism, effectiveness and utilitarianism. As the experts said, Helvetica doesn’t distract from the message. The type is clean, neutral and efficient so that the meaning is conveyed through the content of the words. In the industrial world, such a quality is very desirable.  

I think the political correctness of being neutral and its association with the modern society makes Helvetica a powerful type. It’s interesting to see how many logos are illustrated by this type, from every day brands like the MTA system, Greyhound, Sears, JC Penney, Oral B, Energizer, The North Face, Verizon, Target to more fancy and specialty ones BMW, Toyota, Muji and Fendi. Helvetica is used by governmental agencies because it implies transparency, accessibility and accountability, which helps to shape the public’s attitude toward such institutions. The type is extremely versatile and almost chameleon – it’s professional when used by American Airlines and cheeky when used by American Apparel.  

Like any social meme, Helvetica experiences rise and fall. Through the 50-plus years of its existence, post-modernism has replaced modernism as the progressive ideal. The type that was once so innovative becomes too familiar, predictable and ends up conformist and routine. As Helvetica’s story comes in full circle, the movie ends on an open note. It demonstrates the greatness of one type face but anticipates a future where type face design will experience some drastic paradigm shift just like it did with Helvetica.  

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