I am Helvetica

Have fonts and typefaces lost their visual power in this age of digital media?  Or is the influence of typography and graphic design, and the authority of global visual culture, more powerful than ever?  Has their impact been multiplied as more & more of us view the world, and communicate, via digital media, emailing and texting at a tremendous rate?  As our visual field has become saturated with digital images and advertising?

There is magic to the art of making the spoken word visible, containing as it does both the meaning inherent in language, and the emotion or content associated with the word made visible.  I recall in high school shop working by hand to set movable metal type on a composing stick to print my own business cards.  But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when I was introduced to desktop publishing and computer-generated type via Adobe PageMaker, that I began to comprehend the power of typeface, and was able to put a name to that ubiquitous typeface, Helvetica.

The industrialization and digitization of the printing process in the 20th century resulted in the proliferation of new typefaces.  Interestingly, since the late 19th century, modern art styles such as Impressionism, art nouveau, and the Arts and Crafts Movement, have influenced graphic design and typography.

We should welcome typographic variety as the natural consequence of human creativity.
Sebastian Carter

In 2007, The Musuem of Modern Art devoted an exhibition to the font Helvetica:  50 Years of Helvetica.

2007 mark[ed] the fiftieth anniversary of Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffmann’s design Helvetica, the most ubiquitous of all typefaces. Widely considered the official typeface of the twentieth century, Helvetica communicates with simple, well-proportioned letterforms that convey an aesthetic clarity that is at once universal, neutral, and undeniably modern. In honor of the first typeface acquired for MoMA’s collection, the installation presents posters, signage, and other graphic material demonstrating the variety of uses and enduring beauty of this design classic. As a special feature in the exhibition, an excerpt of Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica reveals the typeface as we experience it in an everyday context.

helvetica1The PBS Independent Lens series featured Hustwit’s film, Helvetica:

You can’t escape if you try—it’s on your computer, the subway, U.S. mailboxes, IRS tax forms, and spells out countless corporate logos from Target to Fendi. No doubt, Helvetica is the king of fonts. But why?  To find the answer, first-time Director Gary Hustwit meets with historians and designers whose passion for typefaces run high, and discovers the secrets behind the fonts we use and read every day.

Do typefaces and fonts have personalities?  Are you a classic traditionalist like Times New Roman, or a  more childish, playful type such as Comic Sans?  Try out this PBS quiz to determine  What Font Are You?

Not so surprisingly (ask my wife), I am Helvetica.

I’m like an industry standard. Classic. Reliable.  Okay, maybe a bit boring.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about Helvetica and the art of the font.

Here’s a 90-second trailer for the documentary Helvetica:


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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kristina
    Mar 11, 2009 @ 21:38:49

    I’m Times New Roman! Rats! I was hoping for something at least a little off-beat, like Garamond or or maybe Palladin. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to live with my snobby self.


  2. leafless
    Mar 12, 2009 @ 01:39:21

    Personally, I don’t prefer one front over another. I use any front as I see fit.


  3. suburbanlife
    Mar 13, 2009 @ 22:28:40

    Well, i turned out to be Courier, even though i have long had a long love affair with Helvetica – it’s balanced forms and austerity have long held an appeal. Still, Courier has a workmanlike, pleibean feel, a bit off out-of-the mainstream quaintness, so it suits me to a T. G


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