Happy Birthday Helvetica ¦ Branding ¦ Church Typography ¦ Comic Sans

Helv2The ubiquitous Swiss font is 50 today and, with all such landmark birthdays, the celebration is tempered.

For some, Helvetica is virtually a way of life. Although he has got over the worst of it now, Nic one suffered so badly that when I got him round to show me the ropes on my first Mac within 2 minutes he’d trashed and emptied all the fonts on the machine other than it. He’s taking the pills; I think Univers is his methadone now.

The backlash has, interestingly, been about the Corporate assimilation of a font that was perhaps more about disappearance than brand-strengthening. In one of the best Vaux evenings we did, Nic gave us a potted history of the various cuts, and spoke about how well Helvetica simply draws us away from its own form and into the actual text. This is, I believe, what the Swiss wanted: a no-fuss communication font, one that spoke gently of efficiency in the public space. As the BBC article puts it:

"Helvetica’s message is this: you are going to get to your destination on time; your plane will not crash; your money is safe in our vault; we will not break the package; the paperwork has been filled in; everything is going to be OK."

But, as the designer Neville Brody put it,

"When people choose Helvetica they want to fit in and look normal. They use Helvetica because they want to be a member of the efficiency club. They want to be a member of modernism. They want to be a member of no personality. It also says bland, unadventurous, unambitious…"

So why mention it here? Well, as I’ve said, it was the Vaux font. What did that say about us? Perhaps one could argue that we were trying to look corporate and flash, like a good brand. Perhaps we were sometimes bland. But I think Nic was right to push us towards design facism in its use precisely becuase, in its original use, Helvetica was very good at allowing people to really engage with the text behind the font, rather than be distracted by the font itself.

The medium may always be the message, but one can chose the best medium you have available.

So should churches worry about branding / style / design / typography? I think they should. But not to allow themselves to compete in visual style terms with the big corporatations, not to ‘market’ themselves well. But because they have a hugely important message. One that deserves better than cheeky Comic Sans publications that try to tell everyone how nice and friendly we are, but send me into palpitations.



4 responses to “Happy Birthday Helvetica ¦ Branding ¦ Church Typography ¦ Comic Sans”

  1. Dana Ames

    I see the point. And Helvetica feels cold to me; I don’t get a sense of engagement with the text. My eye wants to linger on what I perceive as the beauty of the form, not dismiss it. Interesting.
    My favorite fonts span “font history” and all seem to have long ascenders.

  2. Cheeky monkey– I knew there was another reason you texted.
    OK, so I can’t resist commenting! And… are you sure I said that?
    Even back in the day (when I was a heavy user) I’m still not sure if I bought the whole Swiss ‘objective design’ thing. I was always more interested in it’s social context and meaning– Helvetica as Trojan horse rather than unambiguous communication.
    A parasitic process, where the context we ‘attached’ ourselves too felt more important than the words we actually said– a powerful and poetic form of speech, which is so very UN-Swiss. Max Miedinger would turn in his grave.
    I think Brody only gets it half-right!

  3. I think the coldness is actually part of the appeal in a way Dana, and then part of the problem too…
    And Nic, you can’t just leave it with ‘Brody is only half right’ and ‘Helvetica as Trojan Horse’… Meaning? Love to hear more.
    Context more important than the actual words? Not sure. I’m sure it was both, and perhaps you’re right, but I still feel that the ‘Helvetica as invisible font’ idea was good… And it did look better than anything else going on.

  4. Brody’s half right as it’s about membership. Buying into a milieu or context– a group of users in conversation. He probably thinks Kraftwerk are bland too!
    The parasitic comment is slightly connected. The choice to use Helvetica is nothing to do with objective communication (whatever that is?) or efficiency of reading. From where I’m standing, those arguments are erroneous, at one point in time people found it easy to read Black-letter fonts. I tend to think form plays very little in the overall reading experience, its more about conditioning and what you’re familiar with.
    So what becomes really interesting is the context of use and the wider more powerful network of meaning surrounding a font. With Helvetica and 1990’s London, there was an informal discourse going on. Loads of people were picking up on Swiss Modernism and ‘rinsing’ the theory. Essentially it was being used as a reference– in a far more post modern way. Hence the Trojan Horse and the parasite, the typography looked and felt like modernism but in reality was something entirely different.
    BTW. 1957 was only the font’s release. It had been under-construction since 1951. Maybe I’ll post more on that on HG.