During my recent illness, I plumbed the Netflix “Watch Instantly” library pretty thoroughly. When I got sick of watching this dramedy in plaid, I opted for some documentary offerings and watched, “Helvetica” (which is also enjoying a run on PBS) a documentary about the type font. I asked an edublogger interested in design issues, if he had seen it. His response, “I need explosions and stuff, right.” So rather than bore everyone with the meandering and slow moving plot that is this documentary, I’ll share two points (one of which involves an “explosion”) that hit on some of the arguments I’ve heard around edublogging about design.

At the 25 minute point, Micheal Bierut, a graphic designer, shows how explosive Helvetica was in design comes on and describes how marketing and advertising went from this:

With multiple fonts, that looked cluttered and like your grandmother’s Victorian parlour
to this:   

The documentary claims that the font had come out of the post-World War II modernist design aesthetic that wanted a cleaner, more democratic (proletarian even) look in response to the fascism the continent had just left behind. Certainly it doesn’t have the baggage of the highly serifed fonts favored by Nazi propagandist that appeal to a very traditional Germanic design sensibility. But…at 45 minutes Paula Scher points out how as she was in design school in the late 1960s Helvetica came to be the font of corporate America and began to stand for corporatism, fascism, and the Vietnam War, for her and many of her peers, and more organic fonts (think Yellow Submarine) began to pre-dominate.

Here we have many of  the major design arguments that have floated around edublogging. Design is becoming more democratized (a point hammered at the end of the documentary), and Helvetica’s design pre-stages that democratization. The downsides of Helvetica are some of the downsides of democratization of design…at best it’s bland but if you stray from it, well it can be even worse (Wired magazine at its inception). To what degree is design and marketing owned by corporate interest? Can anti-establishment propaganda and good design go together? Can good design subvert the dominant paradigm?

Alice Mercer

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2 Comments to


  1. December 26th, 2009 at 8:59 pm      Reply Ryan Armitage Says:

    I don’t know about Helvetica, but I am frightened by the overuse of Comic Sans in the schools. I have seen this font on many edublogger sites lately. I would rather see the clean but corporate Helvetica font be used than the ugly Comic Sans.

  2. December 26th, 2009 at 10:34 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

    Yeah, the elementary school design aesthetic is definitely closer to that old Chesterfield’s ad above, and Helvetica is preferable, but maybe there is a choice beyond those two?

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