Paperhouse at the picturehouse: Helvetica


Designer Erik Spiekermann is expressive in his indifference to the Helvetica typeface when interviewed for Gary Hustwit’s documentary: “It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.” But even he acknowledges that the font represents the ultimate refinement in sans-serif clarity. In the extras, spitting out contempt for Microsoft’s Arial, Spiekermann says that the MS font is an imitation of Helvetica – and because Helvetica is “perfect”, Arial was designed by making arbitrary changes to the Helvetica template. “So of course, it’s even worse”, fumes Spiekermann. (See this link for more prime Arial disgust.)

For modernist designers of the fifties and sixties, Helvetica’s sleekness and balance made it perfect for the clean and orderly vision they were pursuing. In the documentary, Massimo Vignelli and Mike Parker speak with genuine passion about this supposedly anonymous typeface, and it’s power to sweep away the whimsy and clutter of postwar design. Within two decades, though, a Helvetica hegemony had risen up, and it’s easy to sympathise with the frustrations of the typographers interviewed here who are bored by the the font. Seventies radical Paula Scher voices the fiercest criticism, identifying the font with globalisation, capitalism and Reagan-voters. So there’s a quiet and beautiful contrast between these intense reactions and the concentrated craftsmanship of the opening, which shows a typesetter at his exacting work.

Helvetica type

The font was designed, and named, by the Haas foundry specifically to serve the international market. And even though it became the native tongue of desktop publishing and municipal signage, its development was a reassuringly manual process of drafting, adjusting, weighting and perfecting until an exactly satisfying alphabet was achieved. When the font’s characteristics are explained – the perpendicular stroke-endings, the careful narrowing of a curve beside an upstroke – it’s easier to understand what makes Helvetica itself, even if it doesn’t explain why it feels so good to look at.

In the documentary, Lars Müller denies that ubiquitous Helvetica is the typographic maniestation of capitalism and calls it instead the typeface of socialism – because it’s accessible to everyone. (If I ever publish anything, I’ll get it set in Helvetica and have “Typeset in the font of socialism” printed in the front matter.) And then, more lyrically, he describes it as “the perfume of the city. It is just something we don’t notice usually but we would miss very much if it wouldn’t be there.” Hustwit’s documentary encourages you to look at something that’s everywhere and consider its history, its function and its meaning: not just Helvetica, but graphic design of all kinds.

The suggestion at the end of the film is that design has become democratised, more or less. Software makes the skills of graphic design available to anyone who can stump up for an Adobe suite, and the importance of online identities means that people are increasingly taking to design in the way that an earlier generation took to DIY to define themselves. (The designers are delicate enough not to mention self-expression through flashing gifs.) Screen-friendly, powerfully elegant on its own and unobtrusive when combined with other elements, Helvetica is ideal for the amateur. In the documentary, Rick Poyner says, “The designer has an enormous responsibility. Those are the people, you know, putting their wires into our heads.” And maybe the future of desktop designers is one where more people will think critically about what design is persuading them of; probably, it will be a future with even more Helvetica in it.