For The Love Of Helvetica


Alice Rawsthorn at NYT:

Dirt. Noise. Crowds. Delays. Scary smells. Even scarier fluids swirling on the floor. There are lots of reasons to loathe the New York City subway, but one very good reason to love it — Helvetica, the typeface that’s used on its signage.

Seeing the clean, crisp shapes of those letters and numbers at station entrances, on the platforms and inside the trains is always a treat, at least it is until I spot the “Do not lean …” sign on the train doors. Ugh! There’s something not quite right about the “e” and the “a” in the word “lean.” Somehow they seem too small and too cramped. Once I’ve noticed them, the memory of the clean, crisp letters fades, and all I remember are the “off” ones.

That’s the problem with loving typography. It’s always a pleasure to discover a formally gorgeous, subtly expressive typeface while walking along a street or leafing through a magazine. (Among my current favorites are the very elegant letters in the new identity of the Paris fashion house, Céline, and the jolly jumble of multi-colored fonts on the back of the Rossi Ice Cream vans purring around London.) But that joy is swiftly obliterated by the sight of a typographic howler. It’s like having a heightened sense of smell. You spend much more of your time wincing at noxious stinks, than reveling in delightful aromas.

If it’s bad for me (an amateur enthusiast who is interested in typography, but isn’t hugely knowledgeable about it), what must it be like for the purists? Dreadful, it seems. I feel guilty enough about grumbling to my friends whenever I see this or that typographic gaffe, but am too ignorant to spot all of them, unlike the designers who work with typefaces on a daily basis, and study them lovingly.

Kevin Drum:

A couple of comments here.  First, Helvetica is a fine font, but hardly something to swoon over.  I mean, come on.  Second, the “e” and the “a” in the subway sign look fine to me.  Am I just not observant enough?  Are there some bad signs and some good ones?  Did the offending sign have some crude repairs on it?  Or what?  I’m a little stumped here.

On the other hand, Rawsthorn also includes some interesting stuff about the misuse of typography on Mad Men, which prides itself on period authenticity.  Who knew that all the office signage was done in Gill Sans?

John Holbo:

Following up his comment about how bemused he is that font enthusiasts bother to get bothered about anachronistic signage in films and on TV, may I recommend these pages from one of the folks quoted in the piece, Mark Simonson: Typecasting, and Son of Typecasting. It’s pretty amusing and comprehensive pickiness. (I think I remember reading an interview with one or the other half of the Hoefler/Frere-Jones type team in which the interviewee groused mildly about how it’s almost impossible for him to immerse himself in period films because there is usually some glaring type anachronism at some point. Like that guy in the Far Side cartoon, complaining about the SF film, only this time he’s shouting at the audience ‘they couldn’t possibly have Helvetica yet, because it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away from Switzerland!’ Simonson, on the other hand, is pleased one of his own fonts got used, in passing, in Star Trek. But that’s totally different. It’s in the future.)

I really ought to find that passage from Nietzsche to plug in here but I can remember where it is. Ah well. The wages of a hyper-refined type sense (I am not speaking from experience here) is apparently a kind of inky hemophilia, through which you are capable of bleeding profusely from a minor cut. The world fills up with little letter-y fishhooks that snag your eyes, painfully, but leave the ordinary mass of readers untroubled in their reading passage. Being able to appreciate truly great typography means sacrificing the capacity to find sloppy typography to be perfectly legible. A common enough trade-off, in a sense. Coming to appreciate really good anything means becoming annoyed by merely mediocre samples of the same. But it’s a bit different when the thing is such an everyday functional item. It’s one thing to like really good beer, and come to hate cheap beer. It’s another thing to come to appreciate why a particular sort of hammer is really well-made, and be rendered slightly butterfingered by any $9 hammer from the hardware store ever after. Not a major paradox, I do concede, but kinda funny.

Homam Hosseini:

Honestly it’s the first time I ever looked at typography from this point of view. I can feel her view about typographical errors, usually I feel similar when I see a scientifically incorrect assertion in a movie for example.

Sometimes I think movies are not textbooks, they just should not be too wrong. But changing the truth to make it more cinematic has been OK with me. If we want Hollywood appreciate scientific values, we have to realize its rules too.

For now, I’m just enjoying reading this article.

Jordan Mattox



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