Monday 2 November 2009


Last night I finally got round to watching the Helvetica documentary, which marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Helvetica font by interviewing designers, typographers and design commentators, alongside footage showing how ubiquitous the arch-modernist font is in our urban environments.

I like fonts just fine. I would rate my caring as about 50% - midway between people who love using Comic Sans, and people who think people who love using Comic Sans should be lined up and shot.

The documentary reminded me how much I love listening to articulate people talk about a subject they love. In particular, it was a joy to hear Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler talk about their design process: they use emotive or memory-inflected phrases when describing to each other what they're trying to achieve with a font, rather than talking about ascenders and descenders and chamfered edges.

For example, from their description of the creation of 'Tungsten':

A few years ago, we started wondering if there was a way to make a typeface in this genre that was disarming instead of brutish, one that employed confidence and subtlety instead of just raw testosterone. It was an unusual design brief for ourselves, completely without visual cues and trading in cultural associations instead: “more Steve McQueen than Steven Seagal,” reads one note; “whiskey highball, not a martini” suggests another.

Tungsten is a steel-grey metal with an extremely high melting point (second only to carbon), making it ideal for use in things like filaments in electric lightbulbs. I've recently re-read Oliver Sack's memoir of his chemical-mad childhood, Uncle Tungsten, so I was feeling ready to like the H & F-J font as soon as I saw the name. Then this morning I happened across New Zealand typographer Kris Sowersby's Karbon - which made me wonder if anyone has laid out typefaces into a periodic table-like display.

And of course someone has. Design and science geeks rejoice.


Duncan Forbes said...

About halfway down there is some interesting commentary about designers appropriating scientific imagery for 'the making of cool things'.

Kind of interesting

Courtney Johnston said...

Interesting article. The periodic table (or at least the form we've settled on & are familiar with) does give a great visual for everything from biscuits to sex positions, but the point of the table seems to be missed in most of those adaptations.

I've just finished Richard Holmes's 'Age of Wonder' and am now reading Richard Dawkins's 'Unweave the Rainbow'. The first is a history (with many biogrpahies embedded in it) of Romantic era science by a noted literary biographer, who shows connections and sympathies between scientists (although the word was not yet used) and poets - many of the scientists wrote poetry, and many of the poets read and followed science. The second is a an impassioned argument for people to understand science as both wonder-ful (contra Georges Braque's assertion that art is made to disturb, while science reassures, quoted in that blog post) and as a strategy for thinking that should be understood and used to make us more rational participants in society.

Both books track a divergence (of respect and understanding and sympathy) between science and art that's interesting to think about in relation to this article.

luxury yacht charters said...

with some good alternatives. I imagine being hit up by people all the time for donations must get on artists' nerves, and wouldn't exactly thrill their dealers either.