Be­hind the font of all knowl­edge

Sukhdev Sandhu talks to the di­rec­tor of a bril­liant doc­u­men­tary about the type­face of choice for ev­ery­one from the United Na­tions to Nestlé and Toy­ota

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Arts -

One day in 2005, Gary Hust­wit was wan­der­ing through the streets of New York, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic on his iPod, when he sud­denly no­ticed some­thing very odd. The signs on bin lor­ries, the open­ing-hours no­tices hang­ing from café doors, a newly opened Amer­i­can Ap­parel store: all of them were em­bla­zoned with ex­actly the same kind of let­ter­ing. He looked around a lit­tle more: to his left was a bill­board ad­ver­tise­ment for Amer­i­can Air­lines, to his right the name of a sub­way stop; th­ese two also shared the same type­face. “It was like a se­cret lan­guage,” Hust­wit re­calls. “It seemed like I was the only one who re­alised it was ev­ery­where.”

Hust­wit is talk­ing about Hel­vetica, the Swiss font about which he has just made a fas­ci­nat­ing, sleekly com­posed and hugely en­ter­tain­ing doc­u­men­tary.

It is, he read­ily ad­mits, a topic that threat­ens to plumb the very depths of ob­scu­ran­tism, even though any­one who uses a per­sonal com­puter has the op­tion of pre­sent­ing doc­u­ments in this or dozens of other type­faces.

More­over, it is used not only by car-park firms and train com­pa­nies, but, from Nestlé and Toy­ota to the United Na­tions, by many of the world’s most fa­mous brands and or­gan­i­sa­tions. “It’s al­ways there. It de­fines the vis­ual space of ev­ery­day life.”

Graphic de­sign­ers are of­ten re­garded as pre­ten­tious, Nathan Bar­ley-style ped­dlers of triv­i­al­ity. The great achieve­ment of Hel­vetica, how­ever, is to present dis­tin­guished prac­ti­tion­ers in the field, such as Neville Brody, Ste­fan Sag­meis­ter and Mas­simo Vignelli (the last of whom de­ployed the type­face to cre­ate the still-un­changed Amer­i­can Air­lines logo in 1966), whose witty elo­quence and pas­sion­ate analy­ses of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture ri­val that of most philoso­phers or so­ci­ol­o­gists. They make their pro­fes­sion, ded­i­cated as it is to the pre­sen­ta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of in­for­ma­tion, ap­pear so­cially and demo­crat­i­cally in­valu­able.

Hel­vetica, orig­i­nally named Neue Haas Grotesk, was de­vel­oped by Max Miedinger with Ed­uard Hoff­mann in 1957. It was a Swiss cre­ation: el­e­gant, mod­ern, at­ten­tive to the white spa­ces be­tween and within each let­ter. The de­sign­ers Hust­wit in­ter­views talk about it as “the ul­ti­mate type­face”, with an “in­her­ent right­ness” and a “feel­ing of fi­nal­ity”. Be­fore long it was adopted by a num­ber of global cor­po­ra­tions, so that it came to rep­re­sent gov­ern­ments, bu­reau­cracy, cap­i­tal­ism.

It fol­lows that the film, which

was shot in Am­s­ter­dam, Ber­lin, Zurich, Lon­don and New York, is also a valu­able doc­u­ment about re­cent trans­for­ma­tions nWestern ur­ban­ism.

The re­place­ment of a pre­vi­ous era’s idio­syn­cratic sig­nage – hand-drawn, pic­to­rial, full of en­er­getic ital­ics – by a font that is char­ac­terised by its fo­cus on clar­ity and grid-like seg­men­ta­tion mir­rors the grow­ing ho­mogeni­sa­tion of our cities; the clam­our, clut­ter and mys­tique of the man­u­fac­tur­ing era giv­ing way to the over-lit, de­odorised land­scapes of the post-in­dus­trial ser­vice econ­omy.

Hel­vetica sub­tly trans­forms us from cit­i­zens into con­sumers and sub­jects. “It’s used by lo­cal coun­cils,” says Hust­wit. “‘£200 For Lit­ter­ing’; Warn­ing – High Volt­age’; ‘Bill posters will be pros­e­cuted’. It mposes on and re­stricts us, end­ing up hav­ing a kind of au­thor­i­tar­ian feel to it.”

The film traces Hel­vetica’s tem­po­rary demise dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s when a gen­er­a­tion of graphic de­sign­ers, many of them weaned on the counter-cul­tural en­er­gies of pop mu­sic and of post­mod­ern the­ory, opted for fonts that were more ex­pres­sive, au­teuris­tic and messy. One such de­signer is Paula Scher, who re­calls think­ing of Hel­vetica as “a con­spir­acy of my mother’s to make me keep the house clean”, and that “if you used it that meant you were in favour of the Viet­nam War”.

An­other is David Car­son, art di­rec­tor of US mu­sic mag­a­zine Ray Gun, who de­scribes how, faced with de­sign­ing the pages for a mag­a­zine spread on Bryan Ferry, he found him­self so bored by the in­ter­view that he con­verted all the text into to­tally un­read­able Zap Ding­bat form.

In re­cent times, Hel­vetica has been adopted by a new gen­er­a­tion of in­ter­na­tional de­sign­ers. This year New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art is stag­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion on it.

Hust­wit has screened his film to large crowds ev­ery­where from Turkey to Alabama, but it was most en­thu­si­as­ti­cally greeted in Zurich. “There were 800 peo­ple at the af­ter-party which went on till 6am,” he re­calls. “They had a gi­ant mir­rored ‘H’ that was spin­ning above the dance floor with laser lights pointed at it.

It was ut­terly bizarre.”

‘Hel­vetica’ screens daily at the ICA Cin­ema, Lon­don SW1 (020 7930 3647), from Sept 7-27, and will be re­leased on DVD in Nov.

Se­cret lan­guage: the grid-like form of Hel­vetica is a sta­ple on signs and lo­gos, and a sy

ym­bol of author­ity and cap­i­tal­ism, as film­maker Gary Hust­wit (be­low) re­veals

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