Before we really dive into today’s column, I’d like to ask for a moment of your time:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
If you’ve been through any sort of elementary computer class, the above sentence is no doubt familiar; it contains every letter in the English language in quick succession. “Quick fox” can be considered the test bench of any self-respecting font family and provides the instant visual reference necessary to spot minute differences between, say, a grotesque sans and a grotesque sans and a grotesque sans.
See what I mean? Clear as mud.
Typography is often referred to as a hidden art – the omnipresent result of thankless labor that’s only lauded in absence. Joe Sporano, a designer at creative consultancy Oxide Design Co., summed it up best, saying, “Good design is everywhere. Great design is invisible.”
That’s not to say that typographic consideration isn’t there, so to speak; in fact, it’s the opposite. Every day, you are besieged by typography through channels as important to modern life as food packaging, advertisements, and “Push” notifications, and just as many much more trivial ones like public safety notices, road signs, and even school textbooks. Every printed communication you’ve ever received has had some degree of typographic principles applied to it, whether by human or machine.
However, not all typography is created equal.
As every squint-inducing street sign or “ancient”-looking menu (Papyrus) has informed you, it’s alarmingly easy to tell bad design from great design. The endgame of those hidden artists, then, is simple: transmit visual information efficiently and beautifully. Coincidentally, or perhaps by design, the two are irrevocably linked.
In 2008, research by then-University of Michigan Professor Norbert Schwarz on the psychological effects of typeface legibility found that, through changing only font choice, the ease with which someone processed typed instructions directly impacted their perception of the task it described.
Novelty fonts may make individual packets of information easier to remember (see: a 2010 Princeton study on the classroom utility of *gulp* Comic Sans), but the use of “disfluent” type also caused participants to be measurably more apprehensive about completing the task described. The most-efficient, most-fluid, most-typographic font identified by Schwarz’s study? None other than Arial, a Microsoft-standard sans serif described by its own creator as “bland.” Hardly high praise.
Yet, the milquetoast Arial (and its close cousin, Helvetica – more on that later) dominates what has come to symbolize contemporary design. For the same reason that processing fluency determines how the human brain interprets the beauty of proportions, the greased-lightning fluidity of Arial has led to its widespread adoption by everyone from UPS to the fashion industry because it looks great, and therefore, communicates easily. The job of the typographer, whether they’re designing the font or applying it, is to iron out any and all kinks that could prove disfluent, and in the process, create art out of words.
Barring some scattered printing museums, this art is rarely on permanent display in any special collections. Given all that we know about the beauty and purpose of type, it is fitting perhaps that some of the world’s most significant typographic projects exist on permanent exhibition in the environments they influence. Especially when one has the duty of directing 8 million people through a City that Never Sleeps.
New York City circa 1963 was more past than present. Its rapidly-growing Baby Boom population inched through the New York City Transit Authority’s network of subway tunnels and rail lines guided by an archaic directional system that relied on each station’s original – and decidedly non-standard - signage. Considering the first subway stations had opened in 1904, when the city supported a mere 3.4 million residents (less than half of its 1960 census tally of 7,781,984), it was only a matter of time before the city’s transport arteries clogged for good. The dam broke during the 1964 New York World’s Fair: 52 million visitors descended on the city and found themselves unable to even catch a train to the fairgrounds, blaming their inability to navigate the confusing metro lines.
Fair visitors who came for a vision of the future were instead blinded by New York’s past.
Change had to come soon. In 1967, the NYCTA hired design firm Unimark New York (under the helm of legendary Italian designer Massimo Vignelli) to bring order to the chaos, and completely overhaul the design of the New York subway system. Vignelli and his team designed a series of clear, high-contrast templates based on an easily-applied grid system that would allow any new signage to be quickly universalized. In addition, Vignelli designed a minimalist New York subway map to implement a color-coded train line system he had developed, creating the world-famous “1972 Map” that was later displayed at the MoMA.
While Unimark’s system certainly experienced its share of growing pains (see: the confusion surrounding 1967’s “Big Switch” and the opening of the Chrystie Street Connection), its clean, modern, sensible legibility ultimately won out. Due to political entanglement within the Transit Authority’s own in-house sign shop, Unimark’s signage system was first adorned with Standard Medium. In 1989, after numerous style guide revisions and nearly two decades of unsatisfactory tweaking, the Metropolitan Transit Authority finally honored Vignelli’s original font suggestion and remade all of New York City’s subway signage in Helvetica.
There’s that word again.
It just won’t go away. Today alone, you’ve seen it twice in 1000 words and read all but 32 of them in it. Well, to be more precise: today alone, you’ve seen Helvetica everywhere in your environment and read millions of words in it. Since Swiss typedesigner Max Medinger first introduced Neue Haas Grotesk in June 1957, the hidden art’s great masterpiece has gone on to conquer the world. Helvetica is a case study in golden-ratio proportionality and cognitive fluency. There are even web tools that optimize Helvetica text blocks for Golden Ratio adherence. The Haas typefoundery had intentionally created a font so simple it was art – the world simply followed.
So why save the world’s most prolific font for last? Because it could’ve gone unmentioned and you would’ve still seen it in front of you. Prize-winning documentary; symbol of modernism; the unofficial sponsor of everything you see. It’s the time on your iPhone and the Stan Smith on your shoes. It’s the lettering on your Whole Foods bag and The North Face’s font of choice. Helvetica is great. Helvetica is invisible.
To quote English graphic designer Neville Brody:
“Helvetica is a club. It's a mark of membership; it's a badge that says we're part of modern society, we share the same ideals. It's well-rounded, it's not going to be damaging or dangerous.”
Thanks for reading.