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click opera - Helvetica as movie star
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Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 10:33 am
Helvetica as movie star

It may have been Cheshire Dave who first had the idea to make movies with typefaces as the central protagonists. His Etched in Stone stars the Trajan font which so perfectly encapsulates Hollywood's imperial aspirations (Trajan is, appropriately enough considering our theme these last couple of days, a murderer -- of producers who use other fonts, not national film industries). Dave's Behind the Typeface features a somewhat anthropomorphized Cooper Black (is he really meant to sound African-American?).



For those of us who prefer our fonts -- and our films -- a bit more post-protestant and understated, the new documentary by Gary Hustwit, Helvetica, might be the kind of thing we'd rather make lines around the grid block for. And that's exactly what typeface maniacs have been doing -- a recent screening of Helvetica saw 300 seated and a further 200 turned away.



Luckily there's a clips page where you can see a video montage of random Helvetica glimpsed on the streets of Berlin (my own montage is above -- we're spoiled in this city), or Experimental Jet Set talking about Modernism's subversive dialectical side, or even my design commentary mentor Rick Poynor talking about how type "casts its secret spell".

But perhaps the most interesting clip, for me, was one which apparently didn't make it into the final film, an outtake in which Massimo Vignelli talks about the beautiful New York subway map he and his Unimark partner Bob Noorda designed in 1972. You can see the map here, and read Michael Bierut's account of its creation here.

Bierut compares Vignelli's map to Marxism (maybe that's why conservative pundit Michael Blowhard, in the comments section, tells us he doesn't like it!): "It was as logically self-contained as Marxism. And, like Marxism, it soon ran afoul on the craggy ground of practical reality." The problem, Bierut explains, was that Vignelli's map followed Henry Beck's famous London Underground map in the way it privileged graphic clarity over geographical accuracy. But because of New York's ultra-rational grid plan, "the geographical liberties that Vignelli took with the streets of New York were immediately noticable, and commuters without a taste for graphic poetry cried foul".

Vignelli certainly has a taste for poetry. "I think it's the most beautiful spaghetti work ever done!" he says of his own map. He also has some theories about why it was replaced by the ugly hodge-podge of a subway map we have today:

"The fact... the reality is that 50% of humanity is visually oriented, and 50% of humanity is verbally oriented. So the visually oriented people have no problem reading any kind of map including, you know, road maps. And the verbal people, you know, they can never read a map. So it's just because of that dichotomy between one and the other. But the verbal people have one great advantage over the visual people. They can be heard. And that's why they changed this map. They start to complain, these people, opening their mouths, in vain, until the beautiful map was substituted by the junky one."

Not only was Vignelli's beautiful map rejected, but now, looking back at it, he thinks it was a mistake to put Helvetica on it at all. He thinks he should have made it even more abstract and systematic, just a sinuous diagram of flowing colours without any reference to the real geography of New York. And his punishment for saying this seems to have been a further excision: the banishment of his map from the Helvetica film.

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oracolodeifont
oracolodeifont
ed.
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 08:54 am (UTC)

'fahrtreppentechnik' and 'Expedition zum Südpol' are not Helvetica (my guess: News Gothic and Univers).
Sorry, but as a graphic designer I must be picky on fonts.



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 09:03 am (UTC)

Infiltrators! Impostors! Thanks for the tip-off... I put them in, for, er, comparison.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 09:23 am (UTC)
Vignelli Müller Brockman

"Give geography a finger and it takes the whole arm". /Vignelli lecturing on subway maps.

The Müller-Brockmann posters are set in Akzidenz grotesk, by the way.

ƒ


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oracolodeifont
oracolodeifont
ed.
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 09:25 am (UTC)
Re: Vignelli Müller Brockman

as is the 'de Film' one.


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 11:11 am (UTC)



i can't wait to see this film!


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barnacle
barnacle
The Plain People of Ireland
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC)

I think the text on the "I hate Helvetica" badge should be in Comic Sans. That'd put the cat among the pigeons.


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_grimtales_
_grimtales_
_grimtales_
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 11:47 am (UTC)
'Cheshire Dave'

Its interesting that you have to qualify your Daves, we have to do the same thing with both Daves and Steves. There seems to be a proponderance of people of both names that leads to all kinds of associations just so you can be sure which one is being talked about.

At one point we had Big Steve, Little Steve, Medium Steve, London Steve, Long Dave, Short Dave, Little Gay Dave and numerous other variations on the themes.

I wonder if a certain generation were just uncreative in choosing their baby boy names!


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mandyrose
mandyrose
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 12:18 pm (UTC)

I like to think of each typeface as having its own "voice" that speaks to you, just like an announcer in a commercial. Some announcers work better for a certain product or idea, than others. It's interesting to type, or even handwrite (in different handwriting styles) the same phrase over and over, using different fonts. The message received will vary immensely!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 29th, 2007 05:40 am (UTC)

What's your favourite Momus album


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zephyrcrow
zephyrcrow
I'm going to kick all my friends in the bonch!
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 12:29 pm (UTC)

Momus, this might be of interest to you:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_public_signage_typefaces
http://lmnop.blogs.com/lauren/2006/10/americas_most_f.html

PS: Be glad your city, like many American cities, isn't littered with COMIC SANS!
http://www.bancomicsans.com/home.html


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)

The irony is that they're running their campaign from Myspace, which is the most aesthetically horrifying website out there.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 02:46 pm (UTC)



Visual/verbal binary and reading? Try some visual/concrete poetry over at the Sackner archive:
http://www.rediscov.com/sacknerarchives/

V.B.


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lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 03:20 pm (UTC)
map vs. diagram

Perhaps the subway guides should feature two graphic systems: one a diagram for the subway, and the other a street map for the geographical location of the various stops and the lines that serve them. Subway patrons are pedestrians--the physical locations of the stations are just as vital to them as the connections themselves, and should be addressed in any sytem that replaces the present one.

Helvetica isn't as attractive and useful as other sans serifs, I think. Something awkward in its details. But then Univers often feels over-resolved, clinical--although it can be very appealing in its heavier weights.


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oracolodeifont
oracolodeifont
ed.
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
Re: map vs. diagram

one of the main problems of helvetica, if used in public communications such as airports, subways, is that the letters are very much 'closed', making it a little more difficult to read if don't have the time to focus precisely on the letters, as shown here (the image is taken from giovanni lussu's 'la lettera uccide'):


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pop__kandy
pop__kandy
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 03:37 pm (UTC)
accents?

The "C" character's played as an 88-year-old man from 1919 Chicago - check out the period furnishings in the room. Once your teeth and hearing start going, accent slurring is quite common. My late granddad definitely had more of a Western accent the older he got -- more like Wilford Brimley, old-cowboy than anything else.

Then again, I had a woman from France tell me my accent sounds British when it's none-more-Montreal...so i guess it depends on the intent of the creators.


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zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
I've a verdana girl myself

<< "The fact... the reality is that 50% of humanity is visually oriented, and 50% of humanity is verbally oriented" >>

I'd like to see a citation for this assertion

I wouldn't call it "verbally" oriented, I would call it aurally-oriented. Because people who take info through their ears are also much better at music

But where does this 50/50 split come in? I'd say it's more like 70/30 because I think more people take information visually

I am very visual, my aural skills are weak. When I meet someone and they say their name, I have to see it spelled out in my mind to remember it (wonder what font that is in my head when I see their name?) If it's a name I can't spell, they have to spell it for me, if I am to remember it, because I have trouble remembering sounds sometimes. I hate talking on the phone because I do not have my visual cues. Aural friends who call me on the phone often don't identify themselves because they forget that not everyone can immediately recognize them by their voice


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 29th, 2007 05:53 am (UTC)
Re: I've a verdana girl myself

The reason one would call it "verbal" instead of aural is because, as per Walter Ong Orality And Literacy, we live in a literate/print world now, not an oral one, so your very options of thought are undergirded and shaped by that literacy, so the aural is inescapably verbal--even the literate aural person remembering a name phonetically would simply just "misspell" it in their head, you know?--or something like that, I read it a long time ago.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC)
helvetica

In these ROMANTIMES those of us who expereinced BASS as a lecturer and teacher underestimated the IMPACT of much of what he had to say.


http://www.saulbass.tv/


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)
Modern revision

What do you lot think of Eddie Jabbour's 2004 attempt at redesigning the NYC system map?

http://kickdesign.com/mapcomparison/

I think it uses a very mid-2000s style of typeface, a sort of less-artistic, more down-to-business, rigid font for station names and a retro italic block style for neighborhood names.

Technically I have problems with the design: too cluttered colorwise, difficult to discern transfers, irresponsible usage of symbols. I'm curious to hear from those with formal design education especially.


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zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:52 pm (UTC)
beeautiful



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barnacle
barnacle
The Plain People of Ireland
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 04:33 pm (UTC)
Vill vi se en kulig grej

An acquaintance of mine has written a book about the evolution of type from brush-writing, and how that affects fonts like Trajan.

This might count as a shameless plug, only I don't think I get any proceeds from making it, so clearly something's gone wrong somewhere.


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lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Vill vi se en kulig grej

I'm a sucker for a "Q" with panache. Been drawn into using otherwise suspect fonts that way.


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alphacomp
alphacomp
Digital Video Camera
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)

The Subway map for Tokyo bears an interesting resemblance to Vignelli's abstracted subway map(or vice versa):

http://www.tokyoessentials.com/images/tokyo-subway-map.jpg


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 08:57 pm (UTC)

I think Vignelli's map was poorly designed. And Vignelli's specious justification underscores the arrogance that produced that design. The "reality" is that 50% of the world is visual, and the other 50% is verbal? And "reality" dictates that these are mutually exclusive categories? That sounds like bullshit to me.

A map should be functional, and not purely decorative. Part of the function of a map is to orient oneself geographically. His map disorients me, and so I consider his design a failure.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 10:27 pm (UTC)

Careful anon, you are veering into the verge of commonsensical observation. Stats and pigeon holes are the gospel of the moment, 15% of the populace prefer visually enticing consonants whilst 85% of rushed commuters couldn't give a fiddlers fuck as long as the signage and the map are readable. Thomas Scott.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)

Exactly,

it should be visual, it should be verbal.

Aside from that it should be lyrical, sexual, practical etc etc etc.

Quality is always multilateral.


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dzima
dzima
ralf dziminski
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)

Even though they don't use Helvetica, I really like the design of Wergo albums. For example


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zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Wed, Mar. 28th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC)

ooh, that font is way too chubby for me. I can hardly read it!


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zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Thu, Mar. 29th, 2007 12:39 am (UTC)
Would like some visual feedback

I'm always trying to change the language to suit my personal preferences. When the net first happened, I went to all lower case, because I thought the value-added by caps did not merit the carpal tunnel syndrome I developed from hitting that damn shift key all the time. After a while, though, I realized that caps faciliate quick comprehension, and it's not about my fingers, it's about getting people to read and believe me. So I re-embraced the capital letters

Then, for a while, I was livejournalling drunk from my blackberry, and experimented with not correcting typos, on the theory that readers could usually get what I was saying even though I didn't correct mistakes, and it took too much of my time, from a thin client, to correct errors. I believed that readers knew what I was saying despite typos because I know that in chat sessions I almost always know what people are saying despite errors, and it wastes time to go back and correct errors

But now I scrupulously attend to correct spelling and grammar because even though people will usually know what I'm saying without corrections, I am vain about my writing. And I know that there is some percentage of the readership that will be confused by the mistakes, who will not get my message

My latest experiment is dropping periods at the end of a paragraph. Why do we need them? They are superfluous. I don't have time in my life for superfluous punctuation

Convince me that I'm wrong, you designers you!!!

[One might ask: why does she not post this in her own blog? And I would answer, because I want momus' readers! Yell at me if you don't like this post momus!]


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 29th, 2007 05:56 am (UTC)
Re: Would like some visual feedback

When Momus is king* you will be first against the wall**...

*of the internet
**of comments deleted


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Mar. 29th, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)

Gary Hustwit notes this post on his Helvetica blog, and clarifies that although the Vignelli clip is indeed an outtake, the map does make some appearances in the film, albeit secondary ones (Vignelli caresses it lovingly while talking about something else, for instance).


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swiss_dots
swiss_dots
Fri, Mar. 30th, 2007 11:56 am (UTC)
XXL envy

I wish I would have seen one of those "logistik in XXL" trucks when we were filming there... that's awesome. Hope to see you at the Berlin premiere in May, Momus.

Cheers,

-Gary


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 30th, 2007 12:33 pm (UTC)
Re: XXL envy

Alas I'll be in Tokyo when you open in Berlin. But I will cross paths with this film sooner or later, I know it!


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