Among other projects, I’m currently helping spearhead a discussion of digital humanities at Bethel. Initially, I was most interested by the notion of helping history, philosophy, literature, and theology majors become proficient enough with computer programming that they could use digital tools to enhance the skills traditionally associated with the humanities: reading, research, critical thinking, writing, etc. That’s still a key theme of our emerging program, but I now think it’s just as essential that there be a strong element of graphic design.
In short, students in such a program would be more conscious of how the combination of images, typography, and the space around them “informs, persuades, organizes, stimulates, locates, identifies, attracts attention and provides pleasure.” (That from the description of graphic design by its main professional society in this country, AIGA.)
Fortunately, Bethel just launched a new graphic design major. Unfortunately, I know nothing of design. Excited as I am to jump headfirst into digital history this summer, I’m keenly aware that when it comes to designing how our Omeka exhibit looks, I’ll be doing little more than making half-educated guesses about how our visual choices reinforce the ideas we’re trying to get across.
To help me get up to speed, my friend Sam suggested that I check out the documentary Helvetica, an exploration of one of the world’s most famous fonts, designed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman.
The documentary convincingly argues that Helvetica was one particularly ubiquitous expression of the desire of many graphic designers to restore beauty, clarity, and order to a postwar world Or as Michael Bierut puts it in his interview:
I imagine there was a time when it just felt so good to take something that was old and dusty and homemade and crappy-looking and replace it with Helvetica. It just must have felt like you were scraping the crud off of filthy old things and restoring them to shining beauty.
For designers and their corporate clients, says Bierut, Helvetica “kind of cleared away all this horrible burden of history.”
Not just modern, but intentionally neutral, Helvetica became the typeface of choice for all sorts of corporations. Of course, the backlash wasn’t long in coming. Another designer contends that by the late Sixties and early Seventies, that font evoked not just corporate conformity, but support for the Vietnam War.
Nonetheless, it remains pervasive, used in corporate logos for everything from airlines (American Airlines, Lufthansa) to department stores (Target, JC Penney). But also to be found on IRS tax forms and the New York subway system, on Sesame Street and the cover of Run DMC albums.
Even this blog uses a similar font: Arial. (Except for block quotations like the one below.) It was designed in 1982 for Monotype, which claims that
Arial contains more humanist characteristics than many of its predecessors and as such is more in tune with the mood of the last decades of the twentieth century. The overall treatment of curves is softer and fuller than in most industrial style sans serif faces. Terminal strokes are cut on the diagonal which helps to give the face a less mechanical appearance. Arial is an extremely versatile family of typefaces which can be used with equal success for text setting in reports, presentations, magazines etc, and for display use in newspapers, advertising and promotions.
Frankly, it surprised me that I chose a theme for this blog that used a typeface so similar to Helvetica. Aside from large titles in Gill Sans or Trebuchet on PowerPoint slides, I rarely use any kind of sans serif font when I write in a professional capacity. (E-mail is a different story, but I think that’s mostly sloth — Sans Serif is the default in Gmail.) Whether I’m working on syllabi or a book manuscript, grant proposals or posts at our department blog, I tend to opt for a serif font like Constantia, Georgia, Baskerville, or Palatino. Perhaps I’ve been convinced by Errol Morris’ font experiment in 2012, which found that a claim written in Baskerville and Georgia was much more likely to convince a reader than the same passage rendered in Helvetica.
But I suspect that I instinctively went with a WordPress theme that uses something like Helvetica for two, maybe three reasons. First, Bierut’s modernism: a historian who blogs is probably seeking to break with hoary old conventions about what constitutes legitimate academic communication. Second, such typefaces were designed to be neutral, capable of supporting many different kinds of messages, and I’m fairly self-conscious about hosting a site whose evenhandedness causes it to stand out from the partisan hyperbole of the blogosphere. It’s also similar to the font used, until a recent redesign, by my hometown newspaper, The [Minneapolis] Star Tribune, and blogging is about as close to fulfilling my childhood interest in journalism as I’m going to get.
What kind of font do you prefer to use? Does it vary by medium?