In the subway terminal. On the side of an American Airline plane. Bloomingdale’s. Staples. Greyhound. Jeep. BMW. Saab. Verizon. Target. Oral-B. The North Face. Urban Outfitters. American Apparel. Crate & Barrel. The Beatles. U2. Little Miss Sunshine.
It is a beautiful, timeless thing. It is everywhere. It is modern, rational, and ideal. It’s a TYPEFACE.
And I come to appreciate it more and more with every viewing of Gary Hustwit’s documentary, Helvetica. I’ve seen it 3 times now. Excessive? I think it’s beautiful. Maybe a little silly on the surface to be so passionate about a typeface, but you really need to watch it to appreciate it. (Here’s a trailer!).
As graphic designers, we fight visual disease. We have the power to convey how the world truly is, to tell society what to aspire to, and to plant the seedlings of great ideas into the minds of individuals. How? Through color, contrast, weight, shapes, patterns, balance, images, sounds, videos….
…….and typefaces. Typefaces can express a certain mood or atmosphere. They give words their personality and brands their identity. How a typeface presents itself completely dictates the reaction of an audience. All other visual elements are entirely necessary and useful to designers, but typeface…that’s our prime weapon. Some may argue that the sole concern of a typeface should be that it’s legible, that it shouldn’t be expressive. But I think that’s impossible. All typefaces communicate. Like Big Al’s:
That tells me there’s a bunch of pixies riding around on some mythical creature throwing magic dust everywhere. Nowhere in that typeface do I get the sense of hardass Harley-Davidson riders with a fiery passion for the open road. Should have gone with a grunge font.
I think it’s so fascinating to really think about what goes in to a typeface. A lot of it isn’t even the visible part – the blank ink on a piece of white paper. It’s the negative space between the letters that truly makes or breaks it. In Helvetica’s case, the figure-ground relationship is perfect…the letters “live in a powerful matrix of surrounding space.” So deep. But also so true. You can seriously mess up a message by using a typeface with poor spacing:
I bet Megaflick’s clientele would change drastically after a Helvetica makeover.
Now I’m not advocating Helvetica’s use every time, in every context because sometimes you just want a different vibe. The main point is that you need to seriously consider the typefaces you use as a graphic designer just as much (if not more) than you would consider the graphics you display, the content you include, the audio clips you highlight. The right typeface will tell us something, it will make us feel something, inspire us, touch us, challenge us, give us an experience. It will bring design to life.