Despite the slings and arrows of outrage loosed by the Dr and Codename Moose, last night I watched Imagine. Many and various designers spoke of their love and their hate for the Swiss typeface Helvetica, which is now 50 years old. Every now and then they even said something intelligible.
The Dr stomped off to bed in the midst of yet another talking head talking as if from their bum. I persevered, with much muttering at the telly. The gist seemed to be that Helvetica’s a neutral typeface that will simply go with anything. It’s used for signs and shop windows and throughout the evil corporate world.
There was little effort to really explain why that might be, though. Instead the documentary seemed satisfied with arty creatives damning it just Good or Bad. They spoke of its politics – or rather it's apolitics, since this lusty old tart will write beside anything. And missed the pretty fundamental point that it is BECAUSE it goes with anything that it is so used.
The dudes spoke of “neutrality” which didn’t impose any additional meaning. Simple, straightforward letters suggest simple straightforwardness. It’s direct without being bossy, serious without being too formal, clear without being childish.
Helvetica is an unfussy typeface. There’s no fiddly serifed ends to the individual letters, no complexity of thick and thin strokes. The Os are simply round not clever ovals, and it all seems pretty straightforward. It’s usually got a lot of space around the individual letters, so (as one dude said) it’s more about the space than the letters. Still, they did then go on to show a whole load of squeezed-up examples without even noting the difference.
I suspect this simplicity means there’s less information in it for us to process as readers, which means we take in the meaning more quickly. This would be why it’s so good to use in warnings and shop windows.
This is where it matters what you’re trying to say with such letters. Warnings and shop windows must communicate a message in what may be no more than a glance. Understandably, that’s not the kind of attention many designers would hope for their creations. They want stuff that people gaze at and unpick for years and years to come.
But a contempt for a typeface that’s so readily readable is just a contempt for the reader. That was made especially obvious when one designer showed one piece of his work; he’d found an interview dull so laid it out in incomprehensible Wing Dings.
Oddly, the documentary seemed to assume that clarity was a modern invention – as if we’d had no legible typefaces before the 1950s. There was especially ranting from this commentator when they used the complex scrawl of the New York tube map to show how easy Helvetica is on the eye. Beck and Johnston did it better a whole bastard generation before.
Basically, then, the problem seems to be not a fault of the typeface (whose ubiquity proves its success) but that it is now a bit too common. But again there were no alternatives offered – my beloved, graceful Gill Sans is just one of many go-with-anything fonts.
But more, I think all these things depend on the unease compromise between form and function, between what something looks like and what it is for. And the documentary could never say anything of value when it entirely ignored the latter.
My guide for this evening’s festivities has put on her lipstick, which I suspect means it is time to go out now. We think we know where it is we are heading to, but a colleague says it sounds like the blonde leading the blond.