Helvetica Politics (2 posts)

So I’ll just start out by saying that I L-O-V-E-D watching Helvetica in class this week! In fact, I identified with so much of what the typographers said that for a minute there I was actually afraid that I might have missed my true calling, and should have alternatively gone into graphic design, which has been a kind of hobby of mine since I was a little kid. Then again, I do remember one of the “typomaniacs” in Helvetica saying that obsessions with fonts and words often go hand in hand. Hence, I am an English major, but a very impressionable one. Personally, I don’t even really like the look of Helvetica, but after hearing some of those interviewed wax eloquent about the total beauty and perfection of its “figure-ground relationship,” I found myself suddenly wanting to use it, thus forcing me to reevaluate my initial position. I must say, Helvetica reminded me so much of Wes Anderson, who obsessively uses the fabulous Futura font for EVERYTHING in his films, including Rushmore. Seriously, I think he even paid to have new street signs made up in The Royal Tenenbaums just so the recurring use of Futura would stylistically hold the whole movie together. Obviously this is kind of crazy not only to do, but also to pick up on as a young viewer, but I must admit that one of the main reasons I first begged for an Apple was because it comes standard with Futura (not to mention Helvetica). Now every time I see Futura it reminds me of my favorite movies, which is kind of nice. Whenever I use it, I think of it as a nostalgic little tip of the hat to one of my favorite designers. (No joke.)

…But I say all this for a reason. Basically, I think Helvetica demonstrates that even something as seemingly inconsequential as a typeface is a political decision. More than one of the typographers interviewed described Helvetica as “neutral.” Not only is this true in the sense that the font is suitable to a variety of contexts–subway signs, Gap commercials, the side of airplanes, and so on–but also because Helvetica was actually developed in the politically neutral country of Switzerland just a few years after World War II. Unlike my Futura fixation, Helvetica has no fixed cultural connotation, making it a decidedly “apolitical” typeface and, as one awesomely paranoid lady designer in the film pointed out, the font of choice for corporations trying to communicate a spirit of “transparency” through the appearance of their official documents! In terms of literary publishing, though, I think this “apolitical” quality could really go either way. I guess I rather meanly rail on those chapbooks printed in Times New Roman because, to me, those say that the person who produced them doesn’t really care about stupid little things like font, which effectively places them in a totally different (but perhaps less superficial) “target market” than me, who would most likely buy a really stylish chapbook–The Bride of DJ Spinoza, for example–even if its content was basically pointless or even unintelligible. (Unfortunately, a lot of people say this same thing about Wes Anderson, too.) As future literary publishers, though, I guess it is important for us to remember that every little choice could potentially affect our reception. That being said, if you decide to print your chapbook in Times New Roman, you’re just gonna have to accept the fact that someone like me might not buy it. However, if you reprint it in Futura… well, OK!

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