EEC: Documentary Studies

What is Helvetica hiding? Visual design that says, “Trust me.”

The Econ Extra Credit Team Apr 15, 2021
Heard on:

This week David Brancaccio spoke with creative producer Mike Merrill about the common visual design that many corporate brands use these days. Merrill is known for coining the term “Corporate Memphis” to describe that flat, modern, pastel-colored visual language tech companies have used to convey a sense of safety to consumers. (The term is a nod to the Memphis Group, a cohort of Italian designers whose bold, geometric work helped define the 1980s style.)

“A lot of people won’t even notice it,” Merrill said. Much like Helvetica typeface, this design style communicates friendliness and authority without being conspicuous. That makes it dangerous, Merrill said: “It is all about this idea of like, trust me, I’m a trustworthy company. And let’s not look behind the curtain and see what’s actually going on.”

At the same time, it’s a visual language that small upstart companies can use to put them on “equal footing” with their more dominant competitors, Merrill added. “It’s a valuable tool for that really young company that doesn’t have a designer on staff yet,” he said. Sounds a lot like Helvetica, wouldn’t you say?

You can listen to our full interview with Merrill on “Marketplace Morning Report” and learn more about something else he’s working on here.

Don’t forget: We want to hear from you! Email us your thoughts and reactions to “Helvetica” at Later this month, we’ll feature some of your responses.

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