Steven McCarthy: dissenting type
Helvetica, the Voice of Opposition
This is an abstract of Steven’s paper
Since its inception in 1957 as Neue Haas Grotesk, typographer Max Miedinger’s Helvetica has had several distinct lives. Initially serving the utopian tendencies of mid-Twentieth Century Swiss Modernist design, to its wide commercial acceptance and ubiquity through global corporate identities in the 60’s and 70’s, Helvetica eventually achieved a form of invisibility with the advent of desktop publishing in the 80’s. However, the typeface has also been subverted for voicing dissenting political, social, cultural and aesthetic views.
At once populist and authoritarian—readily available in vinyl letters or dry transfer type for ‘do-it-yourself’ messages, it is also used for official purposes, like governmental forms and tranportation signage—Helvetica’s typographic voice is the ironic choice of those who hold a mirror to contemporary issues. From Quentin Fiore’s 1967 design of McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, set in Helvetica, to the name Helvetica Jones, used by a Santa Monica, California-based graphic design studio today, Helvetica lends itself to constant reinterpretation.
While Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface editor Lars Müller might claim that "Helvetica is the perfume of the city", I intend to show that it is also the odor of shifting ideology.
Proposing a topic that has issues of timeliness, relevancy and contemporary pulse-taking in the Fall of 2002, and presenting a paper on that topic almost a year later, can be problematic. The relationship between the avant garde and the mainstream culture runs on a sliding scale from paradigm-shifting shock on one hand to barely noticeable trickle-down influence on the other. This is almost inevitable with many aspects of our cultural, social, political and economic landscapes—it’s just that the gap between radical and pedestrian has narrowed to the point of a muddy convergence.
When "Dissenting Type: Helvetica, the Voice of Opposition" was proposed, Helvetica appeared to to be entering a distinct renaissance—it was being used by counter-culturalists, political dissenters and by artist-author-designers who appeared to be aware of Helvetica’s past, its history, its significance. This re-emergence was not an homage, it was an ironic nod, perhaps even a cynical send-up between the text message’s literal meaning and its graphic form. Helvetica’s reputation as a global corporate typeface, a generic tone-of-voice face, a do-it-yourself face, a bland conformity face, was being subverted to say, ‘Helvetica is dead, long live Helvetica’.
But now how quickly the revolution goes from being televised to being merchandized. Helvetica now graces a new generation of corporate logos, publication house styles and club graphics. Helvetica is back—or did it ever really leave?
Rather than give a history of Helvetica, which would probably not be new information to most of you, my paper is primarilty concerned with the typeface as signifier, as both a visual choice laden with meaning and a visual choice devoid of meaning, even if ‘meaning’ itself continues to shift. I will also add, at this point, that Helvetica’s predecessor Akzidenz Grotesk, from the late 1800’s, and its many knock-offs distributed through other foundries, like Helios, Arial, Triumvirate, etcetera, are also germane to this dialog. This is in part because the distinguishing features of each typeface are minor in comparison to one another—even imperceptible to non-typophiles—and in part because their typographic voices are aesthetically and rhetorically, the same.
Even the naming of Helvetica has implications for positioning the
typeface. It is neutral (as Switzerland was politically in World War
II), multinational (the Swiss share three main languages, and border
five countries) and business-savvy (renown Swiss banking, manufacturing
and luxury trade). When the Stempel foundry acquired the rights to Neue
Haas Grotesk in 1960, it renamed it Helvetica, from the Latin name
"Confoederatio Helvetica" (meaning Swiss Confederation). Edouard
Hoffmann, who supervised Max Meidinger’s design of Helvetica, initially
resisted the name change, but eventually embraced its usage as it
helped the typeface gain acceptance in the American market.
After the 1960-70’s Modernist corporate identity agenda played itself out, Helvetica’s mid-life phase can be traced to the technological innovations of the Apple Macintosh personal computer and inexpensive desktop printers. Its predecessor, photo-typesetting, was a specialized and expensive process, as was the manuscript writing and type speccing that preceded it. This process did yeild higher quality type which then had to be pasted into a layout, and further refined for printing by pre-press specialists. The new technologies—albeit crude initially—allowed for an integration between writing, designing and printing (congruent with philosophies of post-modernity and post-structuralism), whereas the tools, methods and typefaces of the International Style’s photo-typesetters were seen as archaic and limiting.
Eventually high resolution laserprinters, combined with Adobe’s
PostScript page description language, allowed for ‘typeset quality’
type to enter the world of desktop publishing. Every Macintosh computer
since 1985 has included Helvetica as a so-called ‘resident font’.
Church newsletters, company memos, school literary journals, ‘cat
missing’ and ‘car for sale’ signs began to embrace Helvetica as "an
all-purpose type design that can deliver practically any message
clearly and efficiently". Helvetica, with its "satisfying rightness",
was ‘old school’ Modernism, but the Mac unwittingly resurrected it.
When the PC world eventually caught up to Macintosh’s graphical user
interface with Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 operating system in 1992, the
Helvetica knock-off Arial was shipped with it, guaranteeing even wider
and more ubiquitous exposure for Helvetica-ness.
Helvetica was largely relegated to the class of ‘untouchable’
typefaces in the mid-1980’s through the 1990’s by American avant garde
graphic designers, primarily driven by the experimental programs at the
Cranbrook Academy of Art and CalArts, and disseminated through Emigre
magazine. British wunderkind Neville Brody, however, "generated strange
new letterforms (in the 80’s) while letting old ones—such as
Helvetica—flash briefly back into fashion."
But today, even the term ‘desktop publishing revolution’ seems ancient as the internet has moved visual communications into a whole new realm. Yet, Helvetica persists, like a steady rain. Alastair Johnston makes an analogy between the spread of Helvetica and that of Velveeta processed cheese, coining the word Velveetica to describe it as "not invisible, just boring." It can currently be seen online and off, in newly designed corporate logos, in contemporary advertising, in slick publications and gritty street graphics. Neue Helvetica, from 1983, has added ultra thin and thick weights to extend the rational family system, and offers graphic designers choices that the ‘resident font’ Helvetica users don’t have.
Mike Parker predicted it in this way in 1993:
To the weary designer, Helvetica seems best forgotten, although some
distant morning it may surprise and refresh us by offering relief from
the insistence of new favorites. Never again should we have to endure
quite such dulling repetition of any single design.
Rudy Vanderlans, editor of the alternative graphic design magazine and digital type foundry Emigre, states this year in Rant, Emigre issue 64:
One trend in question stands out and needs scrutiny. On the surface,
it seems to be a reaction to 90s personal expressionism. It is
epitomized by a return to Helvetica – and all its bland cousins, neices
and nephews – and it employs simple systems, modules and grids to
He then graphically illustrates this concept with a typographic
interpretation of this phenomenon, using only the phrase "Blah, blah
blah", repeated numerous times for effect, set of course, in Helvetica
Bold. Later in the same issue, type designer, critic and academic Mr.
Keedy compares "Old Modernism" with "Modernism 8.0": Helvetica is the
only typeface that shows up in both columns.
In his article, "The Face of Uniformity", Toronto-based typographer and designer Nick Shinn goes as far as calling today’s usage of Helvetica and other early to mid-Twentieth Century sans serif faces a "facist aesthetic" that "pander(s) to the authority of mass fashion". Contemporary Dutch graphic designer Mieke Gerritzen has produced publication and web designs, including an issue of Emigre, using nothing but bold weights of Helvetica to either expolit this, or make a commentary on it.
I propose an alternate way of looking at Helvetica that is less
formal and more literal. If Helvetica is used to set boring words, then
it’s boring. If Helvetica is used to set facist messages, then it’s
facist. Divorcing form from meaning is actually a by-product of the
Swiss Modernist movement. Contemporary critical discourse ought to
employ more complex tools for analysis, with a stronger consideration
of context. In her unorthodox solo issue of Design Quarterly, published
in 1986, digital imaging pioneer April Grieman quotes the philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein—ironically set in Helvetica—"if you give it a
sense, it makes sense".
In conclusion, Helvetica’s staying power seems to parallel other current philosphical movements: emergence theory, convergence, integrative theory, hybridization: it’s cultish and popular, it’s ugly and beautiful, it’s hip and dull. So while Helvetica has never been ideologically neutral, it has since been aesthetically neutered.
Steven McCarthy is Associate Professor of Graphic
Design at the University of Minnesota. He is also a designer, sculptor
and artist and has won many awards for his work, which has been
exhibited in several prestigious collections. Steven also writes and
presents on the topic of graphic design authorship.