Come, Thou Font of Every Business

Español: Muestra fuente tipográfica Helvetica ...
Helvetica Neue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy July 4th! The rain fell on many a parade in Atlanta today, so I settled in to watch something random on Netflix. I stumbled upon the documentary Helvetica, a modest history of the Swiss typeface Helvetica, by documentary director Gary Hustwit.

It takes a special type of person to watch a 90 minute-long film about a font: a nerd. I am that special person. Hustwit took us to the quaint Haas font foundry in Basel, Switzerland, where Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann collaborated to create Neue Haas Grotesk (the font’s original name). Helvetica inspires calm with its clean lines and modernist occupation of white space. No fancy dancy serifs or angsty faces.

The film made typography appear to be a fascinating field that attempts to solve questions in design that non-designers don’t think to ask. What struck me most about the film was how it succeeded in impressing me with the font’s ubiquitous presence.

It reminds me of when I first learned how great a role advertising plays on the American psyche. A hamburger sweats juicily on your TV, and lo and behold! You’re hungry. But it’s subtle. You attribute your hunger to your now-growling stomach, not the Applebees commercial you just saw.

HelvticaPer Hustwit’s film, typeface selection has this same import. The no-nonsense font communicates simply and authoritatively, so it’s used often for business logos and public signs. In fact, the type designers interviewed described font choice as a type of advertising. This blew my mind. But considering that fonts are supposed to be invisible (unless they’re not)it began to make sense that a successful font choice influences you without your knowledge. It speaks to a different part of your cognition, a part that is not reading words, but interpreting balance and creating meaning.

So the all-capped Helvetica on the United States Postal Service logo and the Target logo have been working typeface juju on me this entire time? It must be. I had no idea how many well-known businesses (more than 40) used Helvetica for branding. Here’s a long list, which includes American Airlines, Staples, Jeep, Néstlé, Post-It, Scotch, and Microsoft.

Like most enjoyable nerd activities, watching Helvetica opened me up to another way of understanding how societies communicate through layers of language. Lastly, a few of the designers dropped some nuggets I thought I’d share.

“Creating order is typography.” Wim Crouwel
“Type has spirit and can convey mood.” Paula Scher
“Don’t confuse legibility with communication.” David Carson

Have you seen Helvetica? If so, what did you think about the film?

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