Academic journal article Visible Language

Helvetica, the Film and the Face in Context

Academic journal article Visible Language

Helvetica, the Film and the Face in Context

Article excerpt


Little historic context is generally provided regarding design phenomena; ideas, names, events and relationships are disregarded in design's typical superficial coverage; it is as though design exists in a vacuum. This paper seeks to put Helvetica, the face, the font and the movie into context by exploring its relationship to Swiss Design philosophically and practically. The infiltration of Helvetica, the font, into American design practices is also explored, along with some variation on typographic education from both a formal and informal perspective.

The King has been dismissed.

Long live the Commoner or

long live the next king

(and the next prevalent fad).

Most likely, anything useful about "Helvetica," the film, has been said already. The individual designers who were interviewed during the documentary process framed some of the reasons for its success, as they perceived it. I personally had hoped for a very lively insightful debate on Helvetica's aesthetics, but was left without hearing a philosophical defense or reasons why Helvetica is considered a "better" typeface than Brush, Hobo or Cooper Black or as a matter of fact, Univers. If anything, the film declared Helvetica a very safe social convention, with its pros and cons recognized by a variety of practitioners, very much like Kleenex- everybody uses it, but usually outside of awareness of social and cultural consequences. That should set the public at ease, because among reader-tests of a fairly large sample of CEOs and decision-makers, most were unaware of font differences and could not distinguish between serif and san-serif types. It is also interesting that the film deals mostly with environmental graphics- posters, super-graphics, signage, short verbal statements and directives. Maybe one of the major reasons is that in this documentary style, it is easier to stay with Helvetica in display sizes to avoid having to camera-zoom in and out of the much smaller page environments- not at all like E. F. Schumacher, who thought that "small makes beautiful economics, especially when people matter- and not just the ego, élan and showmanship of designers. Big seems still more beautiful, even though the monumental Bauhaus book, a 1969 MIT Press door-stop, cannot be read in leisure or with reading pleasure, even though it is composed in Helvetica. What the film did not do, especially for younger generations of designers, is set the complex stage that made the typeface successful. The film reminds us of the many design history accounts that present the subject in heroic terms, tiptoeing through a vast political minefield, leaving the reality of the competing contexts unexplored.

The film is also not very insightful in that it does not recognize the long history of Swiss cultural aesthetics; Swiss Design did not as easily walk off an assembly line as its not culture-referenced interpretation did in the US. It was diligently grounded in Swiss cultural traditions, and, even more importantly, in the indigenous visual language of drawing, printmaking and painting. Unlike American designers, the Swiss gladly acknowledged their roots in the arts, celebrated them and never attempted to forget them or get away from them. Also, Swiss Design was not just about systemic and modular typography but much more about sophisticated aesthetic form in the development of letters, graphics and photographies. Ingenious form was the hallmark of Swiss design. This was practiced by few in the US then, and exists no longer.

Let's face it, when Walter Herdeg introduced the new generation of Swiss designers in Graphis magazine during the fifties, it stood on a solid and culturally supported platform. The list of competent predecessors is extremely long. It includes the early group of Otto Baumberger, Augustino Giacometti or Burkhard Mangold, which begets Fritz Bühler, Donald Brun, Hans Erni, Hans FaIk, Herbert Leupin, Niklaus Stoeklin, from which emerge those designers that create the Swiss Design phenomenon, and among many others such as Max Bill, Karl Gerstner, Hans Hartmann, Armin Hofmann, Gottfried Honegger and Warja Honegger-Lavater, Richard Paul Lohse, Thérèse Moll, Ruth Näpflin, Hans Neuburg, Siegfried Odermatt, Emil Ruder, Nelly Rudin, Max Schmid, Anton Stankowski, Peter van Arx, Carlo Vivarelli, and Kurt Wirth. …

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