This evening I went to see a documentary called Helvetica with some friends from work. Normally I wouldn’t write about films here, but this one seemed appropriate. Positioning itself as a documentary about a font, it was actually a broader exploration of the evolution of typography and what a font communicates.
Helvetica was created in the late ’50s. At the time it solved many graphic design problems and it sort of took the modern world by storm. Later, there was some post-modern backlash, but the font was already so ubiquitous, there was no going back. The film depicted the views and feelings of many prominent designers, and offered a wide range of perspectives on the font.
The font’s supporters said it was successful because it was clean, straightforward, easy-to-read, modern, uniform, democratic, human, friendly, efficient, neutral, unbiased, global, trustworthy, and authoritative. Plus, it’s flexilble. Essentially, you can use it in different ways and in a wide variety of contexts to give it any number of different connotations, and evoke a broad range of responses.
It’s detractors accused the font of being corporate, soulless, dull, oppressive, bland, imperialistic, conformist, and too ubiquitous. Everything from having no personality to being actually evil! David Carson, graphic designer and creator of Raygun magazine, commented that “legibility does not equal communication.”
Both sides had really good points. I suppose the question is: what are you trying to communicate, and how does that communication take form? Typography is like the textual equivalent of body language. One person can gesticulate wildly as they tell you a story, and that can augment the story being told, or it could just be distracting. Another person can sit calmly and tell you something in confident, even tones. This may give their words more credibility and authority, or they may be hiding something under that facade.