EEC: Documentary Studies

A Q&A with David Brancaccio on “Helvetica”

The Econ Extra Credit Team and David Brancaccio Apr 8, 2021
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Our April documentary selection delves deep into the history of a typeface that, wittingly or not, we all know very, very well: Helvetica. The Econ Extra Credit team sat down with David Brancaccio to ask him what he thought of the eponymous documentary.

Q: David, you weren’t a newcomer to “Helvetica,” which left a lasting impression on you.

David Brancaccio: I’d seen “Helvetica” some years ago and remember being floored, delighted by how this opened up a whole new world for me. I didn’t understand Helvetica’s role in nearly everything. Or, more specifically, that typeface is a whole hidden language; we speak a language that we are not always aware we are speaking.

Q: “Helvetica,” which riffs on its history and the corporatization of the typeface in the 1960s, brings up a lot of the questions we ask ourselves today: Why does every brand look the same? Why does every millennial startup look the same? Why have many of the major internet names taken away all their serifs, their bubbles, their colors? They now look like cousins, and they look like Helvetica in most cases.

Brancaccio: In the movie people take sides on this font, Helvetica, that is ubiquitous. Paula Scher, a famous designer who’s in the film, says that she’s “morally opposed” to Helvetica because she says big corporations are slathered in it. You know, it’s a strong statement. It’s the corporate, inoffensive typeface, right? And so Scher wants something more interesting. She sees it as the voice of consumerism.

I don’t take sides here. I understand the problem: Something that’s so part of the tapestry of pop culture that appeals to everybody, that it’s not interesting. Like the TV show that has the highest ratings may not appeal to me directly. But I gotta say, the emotional response provoked in me by seeing “Helvetica” is generally pretty positive. And here’s the specific example: In the film they remind us that New York City Sanitation Department trucks, big, old garbage trucks, the logo for the Sanitation Department is the word “sanitation” in Helvetica. Now when I see it in Helvetica, not in some more ponderous official, refuse-department font, I’m slightly delighted. It says to me, even if it’s not true, that oh, this must be an enlightened sanitation department.

Maybe the most important part of the film is that typeface choice is spin, and that it may not be true. The idea being conveyed by the typeface may be inaccurate. You have to watch out for that.

Q: I was reminded of the concept of Corporate Memphis, coined to describe the ubiquitous look of startups these days. You see it in text and in illustrations, renderings of people or other icons that are really common in user interfaces. It’s like this very ubiquitous style — Helvetica-y, pastel-y style that kind of nicens up a lot of tech products. It’s become kind of a joke among graphic designers, this style.

Brancaccio: Right. I know a composer in Hollywood and, very often, the director says: “I want music like this other film that was successful, but not so close that I get sued.” And the guy’s job is to make a knockoff score that’s close enough. And you can imagine that when you’re talking to investors with your startup, you want to sort of get them in the head space of another successful startup.

Q: Why is it OK that Helvetica is everywhere, that nobody seems to care?

Brancaccio: The movie makes a point: Maybe it’s that Helvetica is perfect, or close to perfect, and can’t be improved upon— sort of like a bicycle has two wheels. They keep trying to improve on bicycles, but there’s not much more they can do because they’re kind of perfect. It’s so devoid of making a point, in their view. Why that’s interesting, and why it’s connected to business and the market, is that it’s the opposite of just about everything else, where style is important. Unlike shoes, and neckties, they’ve actually perfected a typeface so that if they come out with a groovy one next year, it’s not really going to hold. This is an odd expression of something that won’t change from season to season. Just about everything else needs to be changed every season, or every other season. And I thought, well, then how do you run a consumer culture where you don’t have to sell a new typeface? What if we did this with shoes? What if we did this with cars? People might try to do it a little bit differently, but ultimately, people would gravitate back to this platonic ideal of a shoe or a car.

Q: The people in the film emphasize the humanness of Helvetica and how businesses love it because it makes them feel the same, neutral and efficient, but the smoothness makes them seem human. And how that might be alluring to a company.

Brancaccio: Well, English has become a lingua franca for global capitalism. And Helvetica’s sort of like that. We learn in this film, that typeface, these fonts, are communicating stuff to us that we are not consciously processing. It’s subliminal, you know: “Hi, we’re the warm and fuzzy brand” because of Helvetica or some other choice of typeface. Or “We’re the angry, bad-boy brand.” But if it’s irrational, traditional economics presumes that we are rational consumers and that we are processing stuff and buying things based on price. But it might be that we bought something based on a warm and fuzzy typeface that we were completely unaware of was working on us. I didn’t really know typeface was doing that.

Q: Do you have a favorite typeface?

Brancaccio: My favorite typeface is called Johnston, it’s the London Underground’s. For me, it’s an amazing balance between authoritative and whimsical. I always feel that when I’m surrounded by the signs and the maps in the London Underground font, that it’s kind of like I went to Legoland or I went to a theme park. The font makes it seem like something that you miss when you’re not doing it. [Laughs] I’m just laughing because we’re doing all this talking about fonts and typefaces. It’s funny. Like, really? We just talked about that?

We hope you’ll watch“Helvetica” with us. The film is available to stream for a small rental fee on several subscription-based services and for free for some Kanopy users. As always, please let us know what you think! Email your thoughts to extracredit@marketplace.org, and we’ll feature some of those answers in an upcoming newsletter.

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