Wednesday, April 02, 2008


I've just finished watching "Helvetica," the 2007 documentary about the English-speaking world's most ubiquitous, anonymous, and versatile font.

I'm not a very visual person and my knowledge of fonts is very much a patchwork, but there's no doubt that Helvetica is everywhere and that it's used to convey pretty much everything. Unlike almost every other font, designers can present it as impersonally cautionary (warning signs), cooly hip (British electronica band logos), or clean and upscale ("The Gap").

Today, while waiting for my optometrist to see me, I leafed through Vogue magazine and -- yes -- there was Helvetica, representing everything from shoes to jewelry to makeup. Since I find subconscious standards to be sort of ominous, I'm disturbed to report that I pretty much use it every day in my work: our technical writing department's style guide dictates Arial as the choice for headings and footers, and Arial is Helvetica's uneasy twin sister.

All this has gotten me thinking more about fonts in general, and how we tend to not even notice them unless something has gone wrong. People who design fonts share a sad fate with those who arrange film scores: their work is meant to enhance a final product without ever calling attention to itself.

Even though I've spent eight years working closely with fonts I can only recognize a handful. I've spent all this time working for a company that makes character generation software, and in all three of the jobs I've had during that time (technical support, quality assurance, and now technical writing) I've had to be aware of what a computer-generated font achieves.

Back when I was in the technical support department, I used to get calls from people who simply didn't understand fonts. They thought it was a "bug" if the ugly, outrageous, highly-specialized font they wanted to use -- Loki Cola for example -- didn't contain all the numbers and symbols that they needed for their video. They seemed to believe that fonts were generated by some sort of computer magic, instead of being designed by someone purely for the purpose of giving more tasteless options to cut-rate wedding videographers.

Once those people found out that fonts actually COST MONEY they got REALLY upset.

So I promise myself that now, after so many years of taking fonts (and fontographers) for granted, I'm going to learn a bit more about them. And, hopefully, I'll learn to use them more thoughtfully and effectively.


Raven said...

Ah, but is "Helvetica" a good movie?

As a bit of a font geek, it sounds like something I would watch... As long as it wasn't completely deadpan.

Anonymous said...

fonts? deadpan? hardly.

there's one shot where times new roman takes a pie in the face.

hilarious yet scary

Hilda said...

OHMYGOD! Finally another person who saw this documentary! I should have known if it would be anyone it would be you Muffy! You rock!

Oh, how my friends have ridiculed me when I told them about it. Wasn't it interesting? I thought it was really well done and didn't find it boring at all!

I feel somehow validated. Thanks Muffy!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Oh wow, Raven, this movie is PERFECT for font geeks. It isn't fast-paced or goofy, consisting almost entirely of interviews with font designers and graphic designers, all of whom come across as VERY knowledgeable about the subject (except for the small handfull who think fonts are just silly).

The film is interspersed with street scenes from around the Western world, showing the ubiquity of Helvetica in the environment.

Yes, it's a good movie. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Hilda, I agree, it was fascinating! The interview subjects were SO passionate about their (often contrasting) opinions, and they managed to put abstract design concepts into layman's terms.

After seeing the movie I am determined never to use Helvetica (or Arial) again (except when dictated by a style guide). It seems like a cop-out. But it's a cop-out for a very good reason: it looks good and says what you want it to say.