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Opinion

Typeface helps bring expression to text

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October 29, 2009

Times New Roman: a fourth grade research paper that I plunked out all by myself. Bubblegum: when I figured out what that little arrow next to “Times New Roman” does while plunking out my other fourth grade research paper. Calibri: the present default font that Microsoft Word feels is the best for me. Helvetica: a silent debate among the ages.

When it comes to typography, the furthest most of us explore is the list of fonts provided in the word processor we use. Times, with its little serif feet, still appears around us, while Arial and other sans serif fonts surround us like birds of prey. Moreover, we don’t even know it’s happening.  We’ll read it, consider what it says, and perhaps enjoy the aesthetics—yet walk away without once even thanking the typeface that brought the experience to us. Graphic designers choose everything placed in their creations for a reason—font choices included. As readers we may not be aware of the little feet the “A” has or the smooth curvature of the sans serif “C.” However, we know how it makes us feel.  A grand announcement that calls for respect will stomp its “feet” right in our face and maybe even twist its heel a bit, while a hip and simple Helvetica sign will convince us that if we play along, we will be allowed into the cool club alongside the Gap logo and the New York City subways. 

Innovations in printing with movable type allowed typography to bloom during medieval times. Johannes Gutenburg introduced his printing press. Although Gutenburg died without much to his name, his machine finally allowed all of the medieval scribes in those droll monasteries to party down. Meticulous calligraphy, scrawled out by the monks, was the popular method prior to this development, with hand-copied and bound books being more of a luxury than a common household item. While the western world was oooing and aaahing itself and its new invention, China continued using wooden blocks and clay (developed by Pi-Sheng) to print documents and money since the ninth century. Jikji, the first known printed book, hit the ancient shelves 80 years before Gutenburg polished his press. It was found in a Korean Buddhist temple in 1377. Since then, typography has evolved all the way onto this very newspaper. 

The Helvetica typeface communicates a clean look that took the graphic world by storm in the 1950s and has been aggravating some designers ever since. The tones suggested by typography have boiled up its own debate. Some argue Microsoft’s Arial font is close to, but not as glorious, as Helvetica. Therefore, it falls into the pit of the “poser” fonts…what a loser. Yet while some consider Helvetica a clean look that possesses the flexibility of any gymnast, others find it constricting—the ultimate murderer of artistic expression. When the potential for expression through typeface is considered constricted, even muddy and anti-progressive, someone has to get angry. In the surprisingly interesting documentary “Helvetica,” Gary Hustwit explores designers’ and typographers’ opinions on the phenomenon for one of the most common fonts in the world today. While the smooth Helvetica font can communicate a simple and clean image, other artists push the limits of typography, creating new fonts every moment. The world of typography is much bigger than is always noticed. But watch out, Helvetica may haunt you.

<b>Laura Krawczyk</b> is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.