Wednesday, October 3, 2007

And The Oscar For “Best Fontumentary” Goes To...

"...Helvetica, The Movie!" Huzzah!

During the closing credits, my uber-intelligent partner, Cami, whispered, "That was the most cerebral film I've ever seen." She's right. "Helvetica" is rife with brainy graphic designers analyzing... a font. If that sounds boring, well, maybe it is, but if you're at all fascinated by visual communication, it's a must-see.

Helvetica was drawn in the late 1950's to improve upon the obsolete san-serif fonts that had been floating around for decades. It was a post-nuclear age smash, and has gone on to become possibly the English-speaking world's most ubiquitous font. Everyday, nearly every human being in the western world encounters Helvetica.

But why?

Well, first of all, it's magnificently drawn. Subtleties abound in individual character forms, like the "R," the "a" and the "1." Helvetica seems to have been designed with only the negative space in mind, giving the letters a smooth flow.

Secondly, it's clean, clear, and decisive. Corporations in the 1960's embraced the font, believing it gave their brand an overriding quality of assurance and strength. To paraphrase designer Michael Beirut, Helvetica says, "Here I am. Deal with it."

Those qualities fell out of favor during the Vietnam War, however. Designers rejected Helvetica as a way of rejecting the establishment. But post-post modernism beckoned, and Helvetica is back!

What do I think of Helvetica? Well, it's hard to say. She's like a Swiss temptress, beckoning you with easy availability for a straightforward dalliance, yet leaving you empty in her icy coldness. Okay, maybe that's a bit over-the-top. But, for good or for ill, any serious designer must deal with Helvetica. And they way you deal with Helvetica may ultimately define what kind of designer you are.

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