Monday, March 8, 2010

Helvetica Is fascist.

In the wake of Erik Spooner’s terrific guest-post debunking the wrong-headed typographic history of Suzy Rice, and expanding on the actual connections between pre-war German modern font design and the post-war Modernist Swiss design of Helvetica typeface; I rewatched the 2007 documentary entitled Helvetica. I am happy to report it is still as wonderful a design history of the post war period as I remembered.

The documentary introduces the font Helvetica as being "like air," or "off-white paint." It is both "ubiquitous" and, we are told, "timeless." One unrepentant Modernist says it was used in the 1960s because it was felt to be "more neutral." The documentary is roughly three sections. It starts with the Helvetica loving Modernists. They are followed by Helvetica rejecting Post-Modernists. And the documentary ends with a third group of contemporary designers (Post-Post?) who embrace Helvetica with, if not a sense of irony, then at least a deep sense of self-awareness.

As Erik made clear, Helvetica was not based on a Nazi font, it does however owe a debt to the pre-war Modernism that had developed in Germany. Early Modernism was fostered by groups like the Münchener Meisterschule and most famously the Bauhaus, but squashed by the Nazis. He is totally correct when he argues that it is not a Fascist font. However Paula Scher, who became a designer during the Vietnam War, righteously equates the font with fascism. But for Scher it is not the Nazis variety of Fascism of the 30s and 40s, it is a decidedly lower case "f" fascism of the 60s and 70s:

“The corporate culture was the visual language of big corporations, and at that time they were persuasively Helvetica. And they looked alike. They looked a little fascistic to me. They were clean. They reminded me of cleaning your room. I felt like it was some conspiracy of my mother’s to make me keep the house clean, that all that my messy room adolescent rebellion was coming back at me in the form of Helvetica and that I had to over throw it."

But just because she uses the term fascist in its most adolescent form (a "floating signifier of denunciation" one might hurl at one's mother), does not mean she isn't able to link the font to very real world violence. There is nothing adolescent about Scher's judgment of the typeface:

"I was also morally opposed to Helvetica because I viewed the big corporations that were slathered in Helvetica as sponsors of the Vietnam War. So therefore if you used Helvetica you were in favor of the Vietnam War so how could you use it?”

When asked, "If Helvetica was the typeface of the Vietnam War, what's the typeface of this [the Iraq] War? - Scher replies without hesitation, "Helvetica... It is. It repeated. That's why we're there. Helvetica caused it." As a designer she equates the American Cold War policies of Containment and Detente with the so-called Bush Doctrine of the NeoCons and lumps all of those violent paranoid ideologues with the use of Helvetica. fascists.

Paula Scher rejected Helvetica because of what it had come to represent for her. Her story about Helvetica is a microcosm of a wrenching moment that split two generations. This narrative of rejection is repeated in architecture, art, film, literature, and throughout the academic world. Scher's moral opposition to Helvetica, her association of Modernism to the violence of the Cold Warriors (and their NeoCon progeny) is at the core of the Post-Modernist break.

Towards the end of Helvetica Massimo Vignelli, one of the Modernists, complains that the Post-Modernists "didn't know what they were caring for, they only knew about what they were against, and what they were against was Helvetica." The deep awareness for history that is on display throughout all three sections of the film (especially by the younger designers) make it abundantly clear that what caused the Post-Modernist split was not a lack of understanding. It is truer to say that the Modernists still do not understand that it is what they had come to represent, as much as what they were doing that was rejected. That the association to Vietnam, police riots, political and corporate malfeasance was septic, and caused them to be rejected by their heirs. That's got to suck.

Speaking for the last group of designers, Danny van den Dungen explains that for the generation who grew up durring 70s, in places that were dominated by late Modernist design, Modernism is a kind of "mother tongue." It is not something learned in books he explains, "it's in the blood." This is my favorite part of the film. It's forgiving.
It is these younger designers who are able to appreciate the Modernists without being overwhelmed by the hubris and contempt they had come to represent for the generation immediately in their wake. Historically Star Wars belongs with Paula Scher, in the group that rejected everything, but it's visual ethic is much more a characteristic of this last group (PoPoMo? Really?) that sees the value in Modernism.
The ways Star Wars incorporated Modernism, played with and rearranged symbolic vocabulary of industrial elements (like "machined" typefaces) cleaves closest to the ethic of the designers who grew up watching Star Wars. But to understand why Star Wars avoided rejection Requires a consideration of Futura, not Helvetica.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. She was only joking about Helvetica causing the Iraq war. In the film she laughs immediately after saying that. You took it so far out of context you might as well be bill o'reilly

  3. ^^i was talking about Paula Scher of course

  4. I got that John. No one said Helvetica cause the Iraq War, that would be silly.