January 20, 2009
Fast Company notes that the Obama Administration didn’t even wait until the body was cold (reptilian, only-technically-alive ex-Vice President Dick Cheney being an exception) to replace the old White House web site (traditional, austere, boring) with a new one (multimedia-driven, color-rich and even includes a blog). See screen-caps of the two sites below:
Of course a president’s merit isn’t be measured by the quality of his online presence. But the tone the Obama administration has set with the new site is a welcome change from the beaurocratic, distant and officious feeling of Bush’s site. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a good start.
[Update: Slate just published a nice little tour/analysis of the site that’s worth checking out.]
July 7, 2008
Helvetica is all around you. A huge percentage of government signs, corporate logos and other public displays of type are conveyed in the Swiss typeface. Why? That is the question explored by filmmaker Gary Hustwit in the stylish and surprisingly compelling documentary “Helvetica.”
Twenty years ago such a documentary would have a hard time finding an audience beyond creative professionals. But Microsoft Word and other fairly cheap and accessible programs now let everyone with a computer choose their fonts. While a neophyte might gravitate toward more scripty fonts like Zapf Chancery or (egads!) Comic Sans, Helvetica is often preferred by writers who want their words, and not their typeface, to do the communicating.
That’s the point that the many people interviewed in “Helvetica” keep coming back to. Helvetica is so useful because it is the most neutral of typefaces. It doesn’t express meaning. It is the absolute negation of attitude. As rock star designer Michael Beirut put it in the film, “It’s like air — you can’t help breathing it in.” Beirut approves of Helvetica’s ubiquity, which you can see by visiting the Web site of Pentagram Design, where he’s a partner. But not all of his peers do.
Paula Scher calls it the typeface of corporate America and war — only half-jokingly. David Carson decries its total lack of emotion. Erik Spiekermann says it’s “awful” because it “is widely used and has no meaning.”
Scher’s take is the most interesting. Unlike Carson and Spiekermann, her contempt isn’t based on Helvetica’s lack of inherent meaning and feeling, but rather on the meaning it has taken on due to how it has been used, and by whom. In her view, Helvetica does have a connotative meaning. It conjures a feeling of oppression and control.
I appreciate Scher’s view. But because the qualities she sees in Helvetica are not inherent, they are subject to change. Designers shouldn’t sit back and leave the definition of Helvetica to governments and corporations. The should take it back. And in a sense, they already have. You can see this in how Helvetica has become so incredibly popular among graphic artists in the ’00s — so popular, in fact, they made a documentary about it.