Monthly Archives: February 2012

Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing

Extreme specialization, regardless of industry, seems to produce levels of devotion usually ascribed to the intensely religious.

I watched the documentary Helvetica yesterday—yes, a whole film about a font. It’s not unwarranted, really. In the vast visual panorama of images from everyday life, the film shows how ubiquitous Helvetica truly is, seen everywhere on street signs, logos, tax forms, store signage, etc.. The reach of its usage extends to wherever man exists or is boldly going—in the nooks and crannies of cities and countries all over the globe, as well as into space.

What became increasingly clear to me, however, is that in the world of type designers, talking about Helvetica seems to be a lot like discussing God.

Helvetica was birthed in Switzerland in 1957, surprisingly not ex-nihilo, to hear the reverence of some, but as an update of another typeface, which had evidently served only to proclaim the coming of Helvetica and to tie its sandals upon arrival. It boggled my mind more than a bit, watching as famed designers assigned the font to a status of either savior or devil.

One discussed how all of type-dom had literally been preparing the way for the existence of Helvetica, and that now with the pinnacle of font design perfection in existence, there was really no need for any other font. I wondered if the designer was religious—and then realized that this was a religion for him, a religion of infallible laws and absolutes with only one true path to perfect typesetting salvation. In this camp, Helvetica is a religious literalist’s Bible—human history developing to create a divinely-inspired and infallibly written set of instructions that applies to everyone, everywhere for all time. And that after it was written, that was it, finito, God doesn’t need to say anything else to us, because everything we could possibly need is contained therein.

Of course there is the backlash—the type designers who don’t believe in Helvetica. In this camp, Helvetica is either the emperor with no clothes or worse, the symbol of everything institutional and evil in the world. Helvetica is the font of the Vietnam War, and the Iraq war, and The Man, and is all about squashing creativity and individual voice. Change a few words, and you could be listening to an atheist’s diatribe against the church.

Then there are those who take a middle ground: yes, Helvetica is a great font, certainly use it, but it’s not the only font. It works great for some projects but not for others. It’s not the only path to salvation, but neither is it a direct road to ruin. Work with it. Learn from it. It’s a set of tools.

It’s likely that both the believers and unbelievers aren’t too fond of these people. The Church of Helvetica probably refers to them in sermons quoting Revelation 3:16: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” And the Death to Helvetica camp probably sees them as spineless appeasers who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes.

Say what you want about religion. I’m pretty sure Helvetica is still just a font.

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