I watched the documentary film Helvetica last night. It illustrates how ubiquitously this typeface lives in our visual culture, and argues that typography plays a crucial role in conveying and influencing meaning. Wrong, I’d say on both counts when it comes to books. Open virtually any volume and nowhere will you find Helvetica. Read almost any novel and the meaning you retain comes not from type style, or block, but from the words themselves, what they connote and denote. Though Helvetica might well dance on many attention stopping dust jackets, look inside, and almost every time you’ll find Times New Roman or
something closely akin to it.
Clear, legible, and ordered, Helvetica was developed in 1957 at the Haas Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland. "Like crawling through the desert, having your mouth full of dust and dirt, and suddenly being presented with a cold, clean glass of water" That’s how using the Helvetica sans-serif typeface felt for the first time to a whole generation of graphic designers in the 1950s, according to one commentator in the film.
It gained immediate, worldwide acceptance among typographers and design folk. Today it is everywhere. All over London and New York, on storefronts, street signs, subways, planes and trains, income tax forms, postboxes and BMWs, print and television ads, billboards, letterhead, everywhere. And there are no half measures, designers either love it or hate it.
Gary Hustwit’s artful film points this out, tracing the typeface’s decenders back 50 years through a series of edgy interviews which skillfully summarize the rift that has raged in graphic design circles now for decades. In one corner is Massimo "The life of a designer is a life of fight, fight against ugliness…just like a doctor fights against disease." Vignelli. He stands for typeface that is legible and unobtrusive, that doesn’t interfere with communication of what the words mean; it’s not about the notes, but about the space in between them. He delivers the first and best blow against those who, like David Carson, former graphic designer of Ray Gun magazine, "feel that when they write ‘dog’ it should bark."
Carson, author of "The End of Print" suggests that just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates, and heaps scorn on words written in Helvetica. "That doesn’t say ‘caffeinated’ it just sits there. Nothing caffeinated about it."
Designers line up behind these two, punching with surprising ardour given how banal the topic. Helvetica is both praised as conceptually perfect, its curves, dimensions, strokes, inherently right, unfixable; and demeaned as dull, like Nazi soldiers marching in a line, devoid of character, of life, as shit.
But this is beside the point. Regardless of its characteristics, Helvetica is not, as this film suggests, ubiquitous. In the world of books, it’s surprisingly absent. Of the fifty odd I checked on my shelves, only two were printed in serif-less, Helvetica-like type. Both were artsy. One on Art Deco book design, the other on French ventriloquist, and originator of the concept of the modern library, Alexandre Vattemare. The rest contained typeface identical or very close to Times New Roman.
Helvetica may be everywhere: on the street, in the boardroom, around advertisements, but its nowhere on the bound printed page. It seems that serifed type has been deemed easier to read by the publishing industry than by advertisers and designers. Perhaps the serifs somehow aid in hurrying our eyes along the horizontal plane. Helvetica may be more legible at a distance, hence its use outdoors. Close up, serifs may help; further away, maybe not. Who knows?
Then there’s the impact that typeface and layout have on the reading process itself. If you listen to designers, from Vignelli to Carson, all tend to agree that it is significant. While this may well be the case in the slippery alleys of advertising and design, in the pages of books I’m not so sure. For instance, last week I was in Montreal interviewing Neil Smith, author of Bang Crunch, an acclaimed collection of short stories. The ten page title piece is written without any paragraph breaks. Do you think I noticed? No. Neil had to point this out to me. Not only was I oblivious to typeface, I couldn’t even see the absence of great big indentations. Perhaps this is a testament to absorbing content, but my sense is that it has more to do with transparency.
Robert Bringhurst, in his poetic, elegantly written and designed book, The Elements of Typographic Style, calls typography a craft that clarifies, honours, shares, or knowingly disguises, the meanings of a text. "In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn." Typography with anything to say, he continues, aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency, a creative non-interference. In a well made book the letters are legible and alive. They ‘dance in their seats.’ The typographer’s essential task is to understand, interpret and communicate the text…its tone, tempo, logical structure, physical size…just as a theatrical director interprets a script, or a musician the score.
In short, Bringhurst says that typographers, like other artists and craftsmen, must as a rule do their work and disappear. This goal is largely achieved in the serifed, functional world of publishing. Ironically, it is not in a visual culture dominated by ‘clear, transparent’ Helvetica: a fuzzy, egotistical universe that elevates the importance of appearance to the level of content in the task of conveying meaning.