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Thursday, September 4, 2008
I came to know about this documentary movie somewhere in the end of last year, when I was surfing through the web, looking for information about the typeface Helvetica. A few years ago, I would have easily mistaken Helvetica for Arial (a typeface “based” on Helvetica, and found on every Windows box that exists) and vice versa. I remember that back in 2006, when I was looking for inspiration for designing the theme of this ulta seedha corner by browsing different websites in different CSS galleries, I had come across a website which considered you lucky if you had Helvetica installed on your computer, and offered its sympathies if instead you had to be contented with Arial. That was the first time when I became consciously “aware” of Helvetica and started frowning on Arial. Now some of you quick-witted readers might object that if I frown on Arial, why have I chosen it for the current theme of my blog? And my answer is, that the first typeface tried by this theme is Lucida Grande (if you are lucky), and Arial is only used (with my sympathies attached) when Lucida Grande is not found on your computer.
Anyway, back to the documentary movie. Surprisingly, I enjoyed watching it, and there are several reasons for it. One, it has a wealth of history and knowledge, which was pretty interesting for a noob like me. Two, it is full of candid shots that show Helvetica’s ubiquitous use for almost everything. (There’s one shot of an old PIA logo as well, in which the letters P, I, and A were set in Helvetica). Three, it contains interviews with some distinguished graphic and type designers, and these interviews are simply amazing (sometimes hilarious). And four, its soundtrack is pretty darn good!
Another very interesting thing that I found in “Helvetica” was that it presented the views and opinions from periods of both modernism and post-modernism. Helvetica came into being in the modernist period, where everything was neat and clean and defined by a set of rules. The post-modernist period was the exact opposite, which emerged as a rebellion against the ubiquitous (and consequently, dull) uniformity of modernism (and Helvetica). For example, Wim Crouwel, who declared himself as a lover of modernism, says,
We were impressed by that because it [Helvetica] was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.
On the other hand, Stefan Sagmeister quips,
If I see a brochure now with lots of white space that has, you know, like six lines of Helvetica up on the top, and a little, you know, sort of an abstract logo on the bottom, and a picture of a businessman walking somewhere, the overall communication that that says to me is, “Do not read me, because I will bore the shit out of you!”
Then there are others who express their opinions in very peculiar ways; one saying that Helvetica is a timeless thing which shouldn’t be messed with, and the other accusing the same Helvetica for starting the Vietnam war.
After watching the movie, I couldn’t help but compare the graphic design and typograhy of the West with that of the East. Being a noob, I have no idea about the evolution of graphic design in Pakistan (specially when it comes to Urdu). Though there is one thing that suddenly struck me after watching “Helvetica”: the ubiquity of Noori Nastaliq* (made popular by InPage). In a way, Noori Nastaliq is Urdu’s Helvetica, used for almost everything and almost everywhere. Though I also believe that this overuse of Noori Nastaliq is not because of its brilliance, but rather due to the lack of options for digital typesetting in Urdu. (Now this might become the topic of another post. Hmm.) I am no expert, by the way, so don’t take my opinions too seriously.
Anyway, the bottom line is same as the opening line: if you like typography and graphic design, then go watch “Helvetica”. You’ll enjoy it.
* scroll down a bit on that page to see a sample of Noori Nastaliq
(Poster image above is taken from the website of “Helvetica”.)