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Helvetica

Five seconds ago I was staring at a blank screen. There were 120 square inches (774.2 square
centimeters, 0.07742 square meters, 2.98920291 × 10-8 square miles) of white space staring
back at me. If you remember your art classes from grammar school—as you should—you
know that this blank page is a canvas; and if you have a fantastic memory, you know that as
soon as I begin to write, or draw, or paint on this page its vast whiteness becomes negative
space. I have now—as you may have surmised—started writing, and Helvetica is cradled
beautifully in that negative space.

The story of Helvetica, the subject of Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary of the same name,
spans over half a century. It is a love story, and like all good love stories, it is full of passion,
anger, betrayal, and reunion.

When Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann created Helvetica in 1957, graphic design was
deep in a period of dramatic reconstruction. There was a common belief in the design
community that designers had a responsibility to rebuild the world visually as global political,
social, and economic reconstruction continued. In Helvetica they found an elegant, simple,
legible beacon of modernity. It was, and remains, the most beautiful typeface.

In the film, contemporary designers note that there is an “inherent rightness” to Helvetica.
Helvetica’s designers seem to have unearthed some fundamental principle of design as
profound as the theory of relativity yet as elementary as addition. There is a certain sureness to
the way the letters sit in the negative space, a solidness not found in any other typeface.
Helvetica reassures and comforts us through its simplicity. It is just perfect.

Helvetica’s conception launched a revolution in graphic design. Helvetica was itself a design
manifesto. It laid out an unwritten set of rules. The type wanted to be used in a certain way,
and designers obliged. Throughout the following decades, Helvetica fast became a banner of
the modern world. The honeymoon was wonderful. We loved Helvetica, and Helvetica
reminded us that everything was going to be okay. Though the continued survival of the human
race was perilously balanced on the Berlin Wall and society was developing far faster than
people could adapt, life would continue. And then, the honeymoon ended.

There was a group in the design community that hated Helvetica. Helvetica was to them the
blood-soaked standard of capitalism, authoritarianism, and the Vietnam War. These designers
found Helvetica’s pervasiveness, its cleanness, and its conventionality disgusting, and they
rebelled violently. One designer looking back noted, “They didn’t know what they stood for,
only what they stood against.” The following decades were dominated by typography intended
to communicate not through its legibility, but through its design. At the end of the nineties,
typography had been so deconstructed, eviscerated, jumbled, and lobotomized that it couldn’t
communicate.

Throughout the New Millennium, we have witnessed a return to the design sensibilities that
guided Massimo Vignelli, Max Miedinger, and Eduard Hoffman during the fifties and sixties. We
have rekindled that old flame. We have found our way home.
Five seconds ago I typed “We have found our way home.” The negative space steadily
receded as Helvetica marched on over the course of the past half an hour. The blank parts of
the page are all filled in. I could, at this point, spend several pages wittily deconstructing the
act of writing, turning chaotic thought into clear symbols, but I won’t. At some point, you have
to just accept that it’s not worth it. It’s just not worth it to break it down if you plan on
rebuilding. Everybody knows that you’re smart; you don’t have to prove it. We believe in you.

Everything has boundaries. It’s hard to break something that doesn’t exist. We dream about
breaking the rules because, let’s face it, a world without rules is just about as boring as a world
full of rules. There’s no romance. It is just too hard to explore a boundless space. If you just
keep running and never stop to look around, you’ll miss all the exciting stuff. Negative space is
great in moderation. Let’s just hope we’re never given a sheet so large that no one will notice
what we create. I don’t think we should worry about filling up the page either. We can always
buy more paper.

Experiments are fun, but safety is important. We wouldn’t want anybody getting hurt.

Credits
Written by: Peter Stein
Soundtrack: “Just Impolite” Plushgun, Plushgun EP
Inspired by: Helvetica, Max Miedinger, Eduard Hoffman, Massimo Vignelli, Jeph Loeb (whose
line I borrowed), Philippe Petit, and Mrs. D’agostino, my grammar school art teacher

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