I’m in the Austin airport on the way back from South by Southwest (my flight of course delayed by snow in New York [and actually, I’m home now]), and I just snapped this vaguely Sesame Street-like picture of the number 18. Not just any 18, though: It’s a Helvetica 18, brought to my attention by a fantastic documentary I saw as part of the SXSW film festival, titled simply Helvetica. The typeface celebrates the 50th anniversary of its design this year, but the film does much more than simply celebrate the typeface — which, if you glance around, you’ll realize has become the ubiquitous choice for “clean” design in the period since the second world war. What’s great about Helvetica (besides the fact that it’s beautifully shot) is that it does a terrific job of illustrating how design shapes our lives and who we are as human beings. And in a remarkably 3pointD twist, the film even winds up talking about Helvetica and design in the context of Web apps like MySpace and how those things contribute to who we are, which is the only reason I even dare blog about it here.
The Helvetica typeface was developed in Switzerland in the period after World War Two, when Europe especially was looking for new cultural imperatives to move it beyond the chaos of war. Part of what Helvetica’s clean late modernism did was to lend a sense of stability and solidity to the products, places and publications it adorned. The film, which rolls along with a refreshing absence of narration, features interviews with designers young and old who make a terrific case for Helvetica’s rock-solid design, which is born as much of the spaces between the letters’ strokes as it is of the strokes themselves.
A large part of why Helvetica caught on, though, also had to do with the fact that the Swiss firm that owned the font (and owns it still) essentially democratized its use by making it widely available. In the years since its initial design it has spread to cover the globe (like a disease, according to some of those interviewed for the film). From my vantage point on the floor of the Austin airport here, I can see it on baggage carts, on airplanes, on signs behind the check-in counter, on the gate numbers, in advertisements, all over the place. It’s everywhere — much to the chagrin of some, and the film doesn’t shy away from letting those people air their opinions as well.
Design, of course, shapes the world around us, and determines in part how we interpret that world. Helvetica by now has been used so often in the simple transmission of functional information — in New York subway signage, for instance, and all manner of other similar instances — that we associate the typeface with instructional clarity, whether or not that quality is inherent in its design.
Where the metaversal thread begins to become apparent is when we start to talk about the democratization of design, something Helvetica was part of in being made so widely available — glance at the Letraset rack at your nearest art supply store to see just how widely — and in being the dominant typeface of the age of self-expression that began in the middle of the last century and which has culminated in the powerful medium of self-publishing that the Internet has become.
What’s changed over the last 50 years is that the tools of design are now in the hands of everyone with access to a Web browser. And the design of a message is often louder than the content of the message itself. The messages we send are no longer limited to the meanings of the words they contain. And everyone is sending those messages, every time someone tweaks a MySpace page, chooses a WordPress template, or scrolls down the list of fonts in Microsoft Word looking for something new.
Now, this is pretty basic stuff for anyone who thinks about design in more than a “does it look nice?” kind of a way. But I raise it here because to me it’s interesting to think about in the context of things like MySpace and what’s happening in 3D worlds like Second Life and others. The conversation around these things still takes place largely in a social networking context: They’re places to find friends, to hook up, or just to wander around and socialize. But I and a number of other people also think of them as tools people are now using to help create their identities — both online and off. And an unprecedented number of people have gained access to much more powerful tools of design and self-expression via the Web in just the last five to ten years. So it was a fantastic surprise to see Helvetica draw a line all the way from a couple of Swiss designers, through some of the broader ramifications of 20th century design, and all the way to MySpace and the use of design as a new tool of identity. Highly recommended viewing.