Helvetica – What’s all that Hype about?

Can we say that typography, an art in the eyes of bibliophiles and graphic designers, can now be classified as art for the masses?  In addition to the release of Gary Hustwit’s documentary film Helvetica this past year, (which by the way my typography class rated really good, and no one was caught napping) the Museum of Modern Art launched 50 years of Helvetica back in April of 2007 and will close the exhibition on March 31, 2008. You still have the opportunity to see type, as it deserves to be seen, on display in a fine art gallery. If you just can’t make it to the MoMA, the museum has published an exhibition catalog, titled, Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface.  Both the film and the exhibition remind us of the hard-working sort of typeface that Helvetica is. Helvetica has been characterized as boring and cold, but the fact remains that it works, and it works in all the best and worst situations.

You have to admire Helvetica for rising to the challenge of digital technology as well as looking sharp in previous media. Hey, there is Arial, but let’s face it, Helvetica is just dandy on the computer screen. But many other contenders mark the road to Helvetica’s success. This is why I admire Hermann Zapf, the man who designed Palatino (1948), Optima (1958), Zapf Dingbats (1977), Zapfino (1998) and numerous others typefaces since 1941. He has designed type specifically for letterpress, photocomposition and digital technologies.

When Palatino appeared, the industry was still engaged in letterpress printing for commercial production. Linotype and its competitor Monotype (the bridge between the purity of hand setting and machine setting) were still enjoying commercial success. Metal type and paper still met with force to create a sculptural impression. But as technology improved, the printing business, as well as design and typography improved with it.

Commercial printing papers became adapted to the needs of printing photographs and the four-color process. The "moderns," Didot and Bodoni typefaces, traveled well with this crowd, but Caslon and Jenson seemed a bit out of place. They lacked the streamline character for the modern coated papers and the lacquered finish of ink that now sits on the paper surface due to the process of offset lithography. The old standards preferred laid paper and reveled in slight imperfections that provided them with ample character. Every designer/printer at that time who was worth his/her E-scale knew, and the best Web designers today understand, to tone the contrast down between the background and the type. What makes Helvetica superb for use just about anywhere, as the film tells us, is the space that surrounds the forms. This is how it performs its magical legibility on the computer screen, and with a little letter spacing for readability it just loves to be taken down a point or two.

So who will be the next type film star or one-type show at the best museums? Will we see the upcoming trailers for American Goudy, Three Coins in a Times Roman Fountain, The Many Faces of Jenson? Is there a Mad Man style series in the Didot printing family empire?

What a cast, Ben Franklin, Virgil, Vogue, and Paris. I say yes! What could be more befitting than to see Bruce Roger’s Oxford Lectern Bible on display in the MoMA? Or, with all due respect, for we love you MoMA for your celebration of Helvetica, it should be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Centaur, based on Nicolas Jensen’s 15th century letterforms, graces the pages of a magnificent piece at the very beginning of printing history. In 1914 the Metropolitan chose Centaur for use in the museum’s print shop. So, classic types such as Jenson and Centaur are still quite alive and well, and available in all their digital glory. But that is another story and another show.

50 Years of Helvetica

Helvetica: A Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit

Iconic Panels

Rotten Tomatoes

Veer’s Helvetica Love/Hate contest

By Christine Ingersoll

Typography has always been a passion of mine, especially the history of type and the effect of technology on the visual word. I was introduced to my first Mac in 1988 (Mac II) and have been a loyal Macaholic since. After twenty years as a practicing designer, and a degree in Advertising and Design from Syracuse University, I find myself introducing the next generation of designers to the value of kerning and ligatures with pure enjoyment.