Sunday, January 20, 2008

Helvetica's Neutrality + Polarization

Upon watching Helvetica (the movie), directed by Gary Hustwit, several things emerge. There are many anecdotes about the typeface, its forging and its emergence into the mainstream. But most designers and typographers (should) already know its story.
What this movie really establishes is a broadening respect for the design industry. Most stories about viewing this movie go a little like this: "Well, when my designer-friend told me there was a movie about a font, I laughed. I mean, who would want to see a movie about a font?! But I agreed to go and it was SO interesting. I had no idea how much fonts matter. And the interviews were great!"
It's TRUE. This movie says something important about a group of caring individuals. It shows the world that the nuances and thoughts behind design movements, design decisions and executions are deep and studied, both intellectually and emotionally. There is a common thread among many of the designers interviewed. There is a desire to challenge the world conceptually and stylistically and to challenge themselves personally. And to give every project a sense of relevant beauty.
Another aspect that rings loud and clear is the necessity of designers to state their philosophical leanings. Massimo Vignelli, opinionated as ever, refers to psychedelia as a time for "whatever" and post-modernism as a disease. Eric Spiekermann goes on a tirade about the weaknesses of Helvetica. But when asked about why it is so popular, there is a sense of shrugging. He doesn't seem to see why anyone would choose it. Those who do are, well, lazy. All they are doing is breathing, because "Helvetica is like air."
When it comes to interviewing people who deal purely with designing type, Hustwit showcases some really passionate individuals. Mike Parker radiates as he describes the arrival of Helvetica in America as a "landslide waiting to go down the mountain, and away it went." Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones bubble with type-nerd enthusiasm as they unfurl a broadsheet of insider terminology. Above all, though, are the anecdotes and analysis from Matthew Carter. Not only does he emerge as a magnanimous and knowledgeable individual, but he manifests that rare quality of well-aged confidence mixed with an unflagging enthusiasm for what is to come. Many people his age become cynical and close-minded, but he remains aware and supportive of the design-youth.
Hustwit's most buoyant interviews are those of Michael Beirut, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister. The design industry is endlessly benefited by their positive attitudes.
Ultimately, Helvetica (the movie) is a very emotional experience. And perhaps, that is a further testament to the importance of the typeface's design. As much as it strives for neutrality, never has a typeface had such a mammoth impact on people's lives and polarizing effect on the perceptions of designers.
A big thank you must go out to Gary Hustwit for making such a beautiful piece, for raising awareness about typography and for furthering the design industry and the role of designers within it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Discipline by Massimo Vignelli

"This is the most important virtue for a designer to possess. Discipline is the god of design that governs every aspect of a project, be it two-, three-, or four-dimensional. 'God is in the details,' said Mies van der Rohe. And he was right.

Discipline serves the designer from the project's concept, guiding the designer throughout the whole process. Without it, it is total anarchy, total randomness, pure chaos. Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong and guides us to achieve consistency of language in whatever we do. Discipline is what helps us navigate through the social context in which we operate. Discipline is what makes us responsible towards ourselves, toward our clients, toward the society in which we live. It is through discipline that we are able to improve ourselves, mentally and physically; to offer the best of ourselves to everything around us, including every project on which we work.

Discipline is the process of achieving the best. Disciple has a plurality of expression that can take many forms, but its consistency and linguistic accuracy reveal themselves in all their glory. Think of the sublime architecture of Mies van der Rohe or the magnificent expressions of a Frank Gehry building. So different, but so similar in their consistency of discipline. Graphic design suffers when discipline has been abandoned in favor of the random and shallow expression of a troubled ego. Otherwise, graphic design offers the platform for beautiful expressions of intelligent articulation, of a basic discipline, a basic concept weaving its logic and discipline throughout. Form, color, scale, and logic are the tools of discipline in design. Articulating them is a joy. Discipline is the supreme state of mind, the master of passion, and the governing structure of nature.

There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence."

-excerpt from Vignelli: From A to Z