Not long ago, my little sister asked me if American Apparel and Crate & Barrel were “the same company.” She was hesitant and skeptical as she asked, but confused that both stores shared a nearly identical design aesthetic. I interpreted the question in a much broader context: my sister was having her first brush with the rich and fascinating world of typography.
In 2007, the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface celebrated it’s 50th birthday. Those who would consider this trivial probably missed the exhibit held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the documentary “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit, or the numerous books on this “official typeface of the 20th century.” Moreover, those who find it silly that museums, writers, and movie directors would spend time showcasing a “font” probably aren’t as observant as my little sister. (Aside from American Apparel and Crate & Barrel) Perhaps you’ve heard of: Microsoft, Panasonic, BMW, Jeep, Toyota, American Airlines, Lufthansa Airlines, 3M, McDonald’s, Target, Energizer, Mobil, Arco, Shell, Texaco, and on and on and on… If you aren’t big on corporations, maybe you’ve heard of music groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or The Ramones; all of whom have used Helvetica over the years.
The introduction to any typography text will probably explain how different typefaces can evoke different emotions and moods from readers to achieve very powerful branding effects. Many graphic designers feel that a typeface can be one of the most powerful forms of propaganda at their disposal. How perplexing, then, that so many of the most recognizable brands and logos in history are displayed in the quintessential neutral font: Helvetica. You would think that such high-brow snobs as populate the graphic design industry would consider the use of Helvetica lazy, boring, uninformed (and I’m sure there are those who do); but the large majority of them have instead poured their praise upon its adaptability and embraced its neutrality.
You might be wondering “What does ‘neutrality’ mean as far as fonts are concerned?” Well, nowadays, fonts can generally be categorized in two major groups: Serif and Sans-Serif. “Serifs” are those little pointy parts that sometimes adorn the end of letters (as seen here), and as I’m sure you Latin experts out there have already guessed: sans-serifs are typefaces without them. Times New Roman and Garamond are two popular serif fonts, while Helvetica might be considered the king of the sans-serifs. Combined with horizontal and vertical terminal cuts and clean angles and curves, Helvetica exerts virtually no inherent mood or perspective. If this still sounds like gibberish, compare it to Rosewood, Impact, or Comic Sans in a Word file.
Designers will tell you that the neutrality of Helvetica leaves the words or environs to imbue a meaning. So how does a company like American Apparel, who’s entire aesthetic is built upon simple and basic designs create such a strong brand identity? Is it their corporate culture? Do their consumers give the company its image? Or is minimalist design just the latest trend in itself – has anyone else noticed all the soft drink packaging redesigns of late? Where would American Apparel be today if they built their marketing around, say, the Baskerville font?
Of course, at Wpromote, we have to ask the obvious question: What if Google and Yahoo allowed us to assign a typeface to our text ads? How much more powerful (or perhaps confusing) would our ads become? I love typography, but I’m not sure i would relish the responsibility of assigning a typeface identity to each of our clients. And I guess that explains why so many graphic designers love Helvetica.
…If any of you find the subject of Typography interesting, there are a multitude of spectacular websites filled with interesting information and insights. Some of my favorites include: I Love Typography (iLT) and The Art of the Title, which focuses on the use of type in movie title sequences. I encourage everyone to explore typography at least a little bit (wikipedia “typography” for starters), and if you are enthusiastic, even better! But however excited you get, please please PLEASE don’t do what this guy did!