Tuesday, February 22, 2011

H Elle vetica

Elle O’Keeffe
Dr. C. Saper
22 February 2011


This paper begins with a summary of Drucker and McVarish’s Graphic Design History: a Critical Guide. In the summary, I focus on the intro, chapters one and two, and chapters 11 and 12 as these are relevant to a study of the cultural influences that create the ideal circumstances for the development of a particular typeface. In the second portion of the paper, I detail the cultural and political influences responsible for the development and popularity of Helvetica in the 1950s.

Never Just There

Drucker and McVarish’s Graphic Design History a Critical Guide provides a comprehensive overview of the developments, changes, effects, and consequences of culture on design and vice versa. The arguments made in the text are based on 10 critical principles addressed in the introduction of the book. The common thread in the 10 principles is that no graphic design, object, or visual communication is created in isolation. Culture creates, changes, and impacts graphic communication at every stage of its development and use.

Prehistoric Prelude: 35,000 to 2,700 BCE

That “graphic design is never just there” (Drucker & McVarish xiii) is evident even in prehistoric signs and images. The makers of graphics had to prepare materials and organize surfaces. They distinguished between figure and ground. Planning and implementing each of these tasks is proof of intent and deliberateness.
These truths about the prehistoric graphic artists is noteworthy not simply because they paint a picture of more sophisticated communicators than often imagined by modern students, but because they prove a similarity between prehistoric graphic artists and modern graphic communicators, a similarity that is shocking considering the 35,000 year span between the artists responsible for the stenciled hand in Pech Merle France 23,000 BCE or the Venus of Willendorf, Austria 22,000 BCE and the graphic designers of the 21st century (3-9).
Chapter One: 3,000 to 500 BCE

The period from 3,000 to 500 BCE is significant to the development of graphic communication in that writing emerged. That “graphic forms are instrumental in transforming meanings, values, and beliefs” is evident in this time of early writing because early writing symbols aligned language with the management and organization of culture. The shift from purely oral culture to literate culture happens as writing systems coordinate economic, political, religious, and social behavior and creates a permanent record of these aspects of life. Until this time frame, communication had been a temporary and interactive event; writing systems created permanence and an asynchronous form of communication separate from the moment of creation and apart from the author of the idea.

Writing, while a type of visual expression, is alone in that it is a graphic expression of language. Prior to writing systems the graphic expressions were of actual objects, a carving of an animal common in the area, an impression of a plant indigenous to the area. Writing, on the other hand, does not use a symbol that looks like a wolf to mean wolf. Writing uses a system of symbols that represent the language used to communicate the idea of wolf.

Cuneiform developed in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia in approximately 3100 as a representation of Sumerian. While ancient Sumerian has never been deciphered, scholars believe, based on the writing system was logographic, so that each pictogram represented a meaning rather than a sound. The deliberateness of cuneiform is apparent in that the pictograms changed over time to schematic images that were easy to make quickly with a stylus on soft clay. The ease and practicality of the system explains its spread to the Akkadians, Assyrians, and the Babylonians by 2400 BCE. In business, what gets results gets repeated. Clearly, Cuneiform as a well- developed code for spoken language was effective. So effective, that all alphabets of the world owe their existence to Cuneiform (11-21).

It is in the classical period, 700 BCE to 400 CE, that graphic design is recognizable as an element of literacy. Texts in classical Greece and Rome were read not just letter by letter or word by word; rather the context of the reading, the context in which the work was written and the physicality of the text mattered and became part of one’s ability to read.
Papyrus, parchment and wax were common writing surfaces for personal, professional, and public documents. Stone and clay were the surfaces used for commemorative writing, and letterforms were consistent. These letterforms were defined as ideals/models or as expressive gestures. Because the letterforms were defined in these ways, and because letterforms could be expressive outside of the literal meaning of the words composed, the difference between oral and written language was more pronounced. Writing is not a complement to language (Saussure quoted in Ong p. 5). Just as handwriting is unique to each person, the alphabets were unique to locations, yet more proof that visual communication is cultural.

From the Depression Era 1930s to the post war 1950s, designers created public awareness and interest campaigns, proving Drucker and McVarish’s assertion that graphic expressions participate in systems of production. The systems of production in the period from the 30s to the 50s included government agencies fighting the war, rebuilding the economy, and, educating the general public. The safety of troops, the sale of bonds to finance the war, and the recruitment of soldiers and defense workers depended on messages created by designers. The systems approach is a hallmark of this era in design as systems as metaphors pervaded design as static images were no longer effective. Images of living, moving, and systems fit in well with the changing world economy (Drucker & McVarish 235-255).

Designers used information graphics in the form of bar charts and flow diagrams to create the illusion of fact based information while using value based information to persuade Americans to act the way the US government wanted them to act. This type of rhetoric goes hand in hand with Drucker and McVarish’s principle denouncing universal or natural graphics. The stress on objectivity is evidence that the information presented is not a true picture of the world as it naturally is; rather it is the designer creating a world that the graphic means to create. Public health campaigns warning of diverse dangers such as syphilis and house fires were common by the thirties, so expanding this type of visual message to include education regarding Roosevelt’s WPA programs, and wartime propaganda was natural given the political and economic climate. The truly amazing legacy of this time period in design is that designers faced with messages about the intangible created visuals that seemed innate and universally understood.

Design from the 1950s to the 1970s required graphics to express more than a message. Design in the age of growing conglomerates and internationalization required graphics that created and maintained identities. Corporate culture grew more important as companies became larger and more complex than they had ever been. Despite enjoying the growth, these organizations wanted to appear smaller and simple and even personal.

As commerce flowed across national borders, design did as well. The International Typographic Style developed in Switzerland and appealed to post war Europe and America. The designs were neutral and modern, exactly what an ever-changing and restructuring world needed. The connection between design and culture that has been evident from prehistoric cave markings is stronger in this period.

For corporations two concepts were nonnegotiable: consistency and familiarity. Graphic designers were tasked with creating a message that unified dozens of offices and departments across the US and across continents. That the standards for business documents were dictated often to the punctuation used did not stop designers from creating new metaphors, new typefaces, and new impact with their visual communications. Familiarity created a sense of the inherent in the symbols used across cultures and industries.
One significant development during the fifties and seventies is the International Typographic Style originated by the Swiss and embraced by designers everywhere for its neutrality, simplicity, and modernism. The hallmarks of ITS: grid structure, asymmetry, and san serif fonts, allowed for clean and straightforward visual campaigns.

The principles of design asserted in Drucker and McVarish’s text are relevant to a study of the creation and popularity of new typefaces, specifically Helvetica, The Swiss typeface. That Helvetica was not just there, was the result of culture, and did create meaning will be discussed in part two of this paper (259-267).
Part II: Helvetica: No Arial was used in the Making of this Paper

What do Crate&Barrel, American Airlines, and Jeep have in common?

These logos (typophile), along with thousands of others, have in common Max Miedinger, who in 1957 developed a typeface that would manage to be both superstar and neutral, everywhere yet invisible (Muller 22-23). That typeface, Helvetica, is used in the three logos, has starred in an eponymous movie, been the subject of a book, and spawned fiery debates about the virtues of sterility and the beauty to be found in simplicity. Designers love Helvetica because it can express love as easily as hate; it can sell a sofa or a car and seem like the natural choice to do either.
In 1957 when Miedinger, motivated by the san serif font Akzidenze Grotesk, created Helvetica, Europe and the US were ready for a clean and modern way to create not just messages, but identities. An economic boom approach and this growth in industry created the right environment for a font that could appear natural in any environment as the industries were spreading across environments, borders, and traditional lines of product.

What do cave drawings in France, alphabets in Sumer, and Depression Era posters have to do with a typeface? Everything. Just as those visual communications happened at just the right time to be effective, Helvetica entered the graphic design world just in time to take advantage of the open-mindedness and optimism flourishing in the US and Europe.
Typography does not just create the textual element of a message; rather it expresses a mood and sends a message about how the world is and how it can be (Vignelli in Helvetica). An examination of typographers loyal to Helvetica and those who hate the typeface proves Vignalli correct. When Helvetica was created, the world was focused on corporate America and Europe. Company’s needed a typeface that did not have meaning it itself as the organization’s identity was the meaning, and this was complex enough. During this high modernist period, the consumers of design needed to cure what Massimo Vignelli calls the disease of ugliness (Helvetica) and design was the cure. Because business was so complex, they needed a typeface that the reader was not aware of, a clear goblet of a typeface, one that does not interfere with the message. Helvetica is such a typeface according to Tobias Frere-Jones (Helvetica); it is air or gravity, just there, yet the more it seems to be just there, the more certain one can be that its use was deliberate.

Rebuilding nations after a worldwide war is painful and chaotic. While all type strives to be order (Crowell), Helvetica, with its machined neutral letters, truly answered the post war need for a typeface with the perfect balance of push and pull (Muller). There is an irony in that a country that remained neutral developed the most neutral typeface to date, and did so after a war. Ironic or not, the stability of the letters spoke to the need for stability in Europe and America.
All things that are passionately loved are as vehemently hated. Erik Spiekerman speaks for those who detest Helvetica. While the reasons given are about style, lack of personality, lack of rhythm, the actual cause of anti-Helvetica sentiment can be attributed to culture. The earliest designers to turn away from Helvetica connected Helvetica to big business, as of course it was, by design, but being a part of the larger establishment meant being supportive of the Viet Nam War. As Paula Scher describes it, Helvetica is the clean up your room of typefaces (Helvetica), so it called for designers of the late 60s and early 70s to rebel. The ABH (anything but Helvetica) community lives with so many big box stores, chain restaurants, and cookie cutter subdivision homes, that it makes sense that they would associate anything demonstrating such conformity as the antithesis of creativity and quality. Using Helvetica in the current culture of individually is akin to eating at McDonald’s to avoid thinking about food. (Helvetica)

Design is not simple, even when simplicity is the strongest aspect of the design. Design is communication; it is identity; it is art; design is an expression of culture and it is the result of culture. Design not only conveys meaning and values it creates them. Helvetica does this by not merely sitting in but being hugged by the white space. It answered the need for stability fifty years ago, and challenges current designers to develop something better.

Work Cited
Drucker, J, & McVarish, E. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. Pearson
Education Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2009.
Helvetica. Dir. Gary Hustwit. Swiss Dots, Ltd, 2007.
Muller, L. Story of a Typeface: Helvetica forever. Lars Muller Publishers, Baden
Switzerland, 2009.
Ong, W. Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. Routledge, London
And New York, 1982.


  1. Helpers: Jen Wojton, Will Dorner, Terie Watkins

  2. Love the Helvetica/Elle play:)

  3. I like it. You make it very interesting.