Helvetica

I watched Helvetica last night on Netflix Streaming. I should have watched it sooner, being an arteest/designer and all, but hey. Anyway, it was a pretty revealing film. I already knew a lot about the history of Helvetica, but the film did a good job of cutting across the various viewpoints of the typeface.

I do not use Helvetica very often. It is, of course, in my quiver of fonts, but I tend to use other sans serif options first. I guess I would fall on the side of the fence that says “Helvetica is trite and overused.” I grew up in an era where Helvetica is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere, and I can readily point out to you when Helvetica has been used and when a poor substitute has been slapped in its place. I can still appreciate good usage of Helvetica (NY Subway maps, for instance, use Helvetica very well), but it’s an easy and familiar trap to fall in to. Even when you don’t use Helvetica, though, your choices of type are often influenced by it. The great rise in Frutiger and its knockoffs over the past few years (Myriad, Microsoft’s new Segoe, etc) is an attempt, to me, to find a new Helvetica. The problem is that those Frutigers are not really a replacement for Helvetica. Adobe and Apple wanted the Helvetica standardization without all of the negative connotations – except Microsoft’s joined their train now and ruined their party.

Type is an essential communications tool, and it has to be able to communicate clearly. This is why I’m not really a fan of many display or title fonts, because the effects created by those title fonts are better done by hand lettering. Look at James Cameron’s Avatar. The movie’s logo is set in Herculanum (or something similar). Aside from reminding me of Avatar: The Last Airbender (which used Herculanum for its title cards and credits), it looked fairly dull and trite. Herculanum is one of those system fonts that I expect people making a powerpoint to use to “spice things up,” not a major movie’s logotype. At least customize the letters a bit – it looks like they just increased the tracking, slapped some illustrator effects on it, and called it a day.

One reason I like Harmonix’s Rock Band so much is that it has a consistent sense of style and design. They use the same typefaces across all of their games, save for Beatles (which deserved its own treatment, and even then, remains consistent with itself). Avant Garde is a classic typeface, but the modifications they made to it (leaning capital As, for instance) inspire feelings of albums from the seventies. This is all aside from the game’s general artwork, which draws from majestic progressive rock cover art. They’ve picked a style and improved upon it, as opposed to Guitar Hero, which has little consistency and attempts to turn everything to eleven. Guitar Hero 3 and GH: World Tour all used very difficult to read type and cluttered interfaces. Guitar Hero 5 changed it up once again, not to mention the various changes for the spinoff games. There’s something to be said for consistency and internal logic… which is a problem that Helvetica was created to resolve.

I am not much of a letterform drawer. I’ve done my share of type modifications, of course, but my own natural handwriting is terrible. My drawing skill also isn’t that great. When it comes down to it, I don’t know how I would be as an actual type designer. I can appreciate what they do and the way they reach their conclusions, and the thoughts echoed by several of the designers in the film – how do you objectively measure type – resonated with me. How do I know if a font is good or not? Is it like pornography, that I know it when I see it? Probably. The field is hugely subjective.

By the way, take Ironic Sans’ Helvetica test, and see if you can beat me. I got 19 of 20 on my first try.

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