Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Font-ain Of You

Good design aways freezes me cold. Nothing showy: I'm talking about the ubiquitous, IKEA-brand design that everyone has, the stuff that just sort of quietly exists in the world without call attention to itself. I loathe lucite chairs and mirrored dining room tables, just as I've grown weary of the kitschy, Mary Englebreit-looking design. Things that scream "Look at me!" give me the willies - it's the same reason I rolled my eyes at Agyness Dean and generally find the Kardashians to be a total mystery, fame-wise.

I just watched Helvetica, Gary Hustwit's debut documentary about the iconic font that's used everywhere from the New York City subway system to American Apparel signage. The doc discusses the font's visual impact - it looks so clean and modern, it inspired a whole slew of corporations in the mid-1950s and 1960s to move away from the swirly, comic-sans, exclamatory advertising style they had been working with and re-brand themselves as sleek, transparent, modern companies, in large part because the font could convey that they were sleek and modern. It sparked a movement towards clear, clean design that some designers would decry as soulless and oppressive - but we see Helvetica on the daily, because that sense of crisp professional trust is still embedded in its lines.

Font love is the natural resting place of the object fetishization that has dominated design for decades. It's hard not to get drawn in when designers talk about their favourite fonts - comic sans and papyrus seem universally reviled, but to the untrained eye, there's nothing inherently offensive in them. They might be less gorgeous than some of the more widely-used fonts, but folks also seem to love using them. Design snobs make me lose my mind, because they judge people who legitimately don't have a preference between Arial and Helvetica to be rubes, when the reality is that most untrained people a) can't tell the difference and b) don't care at all.

The design saying "form follows function" took me a long time to wrap my head around - like, form does the what now? But I finally started to get it when I read the New York Times Magazine article a few years ago called "The Road to Clarity," an insider's look at the ins and outs of designing highways signs. The author was swept up in the minutiae of the font choices, because in that case, it can be a matter of life and death: how heavy the letters are, how far apart they sit on the sign, how readable the final product really is, can all impinge on how quickly drivers can comprehend the information contained therein, and, obviously, make choices about what to do next. The function of the sign - conveying information - dictates the form of the font - being as legible as possible.

Bu why, then, isn't there just one or two fonts? After all, the information's going to come at us anyway, so why not just standardize the whole world? Make it all crisp and clear! Helvetica forever!

Looking around my room, I can see lots of fonts: the label on the Campari on the windowsill, for instance, features elegant serifs rimmed in gold and set against a navy background. The effect is one of casual, retro opulence - nothing too fancy, but especially when set against the bright ruby colour of the liqueur itself, it reads in my mind's eye as vibrantly upscale. The Coke Zero bottle beside me features a wealth of fonts and symbols: the classic swoopy font is set in red against the black background, and the bottle itself is a voluptuous curve; together, the elements work to create an image that's both trustworthy - that classic logo! - and modern. The choices that are made in product design may not save lives the same way highway signs might, but they all matter to someone. Just look at Coca-Cola's bottom line: you know those guys aren't messing with that look without some serious head-scratching.

I take a little bit of umbrage at the over-the-top opinions expressed by the designers interviewed in Helvetica - not because it's not important, but because they're such dicks about it. In the past, we were much less savvy consumers, because the products were much less intelligent in their marketing. We look at vintage buzzwords and laugh at how naked and needy they seem, and it strikes us as preposterous that anyone would fall for those snake-oil jobs. Now, though, we need to work through several layers of meaning in a design moment: images, products, packaging, and signage have all thoroughly and insidiously infiltrated our world.

There's a great shot in the movie of poster proofs hanging on a lightbox behind a designer's talking-head interview: it's the same image (crowded skateboarding park, big dusky sky, oversaturated purples, navies and electric yellows), and the time/date/place information done over and over, each proof using a different font. And each poster feels slightly different: the fatter, statelier fonts giving an ironic gravitas to the event, the electro fonts making it feel energetic, and so on. It wordlessly illustrates how important design can be, and how good design creates something you may not even be aware is orchestrated: it just leaves you feeling like you've learned something new.

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