Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Helvetica - How a Letterform Became Part of All of our Lives

The movie Helvetica is a documentary about a type-face. Before you yawn-off (or click-out), wait a minute. Helvetica is a good movie. Really. At least for anybody interested in any of the arts, design, architecture and fashion fields.

Back in the mists of time when signs were actually hand-painted, I used to paint Helvetica as a letterform (type-form) on advertising billboards. (I was a billboard painter.) Helvetica was always a bit awkward to paint as it's roots were not from the brush and chisel roots of all of western languages letterforms, but from the machine age.

For more of an explanation about the roots of letterforms you must see the movie. Besides setting up the history of typography well, Helvetica the film has interviews with a variety of graphic designers who have completely opposite or divergent opinions about design from each other along with examples of their work so the viewer can make their own judgments.

Listening to contradictory opinions and design theories warms my heart. Strange -- but it does. I love that artists and critics do have strong opinions. And that they change those opinions. Been there, done that, over it is a credo that sits side-by-side with the purity of obsession over one thing for the rest of one's life.

About a week after seeing the movie Helvetica I was working with a designer on a logo I recently did for our family business, She was going through her list of fonts when I saw a name that intrigued me. "Let me see the font Switzerland," I asked her, wondering if what I thought I might see would be something funny.

I did see something funny. Switzerland looked almost exactly liked Helvetica. I don't know the history behind the Switzerland font, but I get the joke. Helvetica is a German made (and owned) type font that was originally supposed to be named after Switzerland. They changed the spelling slightly for the times. It was a marketing ploy of some type (see the movie). In response, somebody made a competing type form they titled Switzerland. A subtle joke tucked into a list of fonts. That's the kind of meaning in an everyday object that keeps the art world inspiring.

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