Sarah hyndman on 60 years of this iconic typeface, understanding it in context of social history, and what her research tells us about its personality.
Typefaces/fonts reflect the defining spirit of a period in time. They are shaped by the ideas and aspirations of the era, and as a result they document cultural change. One of the most high profile examples of this is the now 60-year-old Helvetica; a typeface designed to be neutral and devoid of a personality. Instead it became the figurehead for the dramatic social shifts beginning in the post-war 1950s; a time of breaking with the traditions of the past as people looked to a new future.
Life in the 1950s was ruled by social conventions: marriage; men had a career to support their family; women stayed at home to look after the family; Sunday was still essentially Victorian in character; suits or corsets were everyday attire; in Britain received pronunciation, or ‘BBC English’, ruled the airwaves. The advent of the teenager was accompanied by the new rock ‘n’ roll music, which older generations thought would lead to juvenile delinquency.
In the US this was a time of economic growth after the end of World War II, along with the boom in the number of babies being born as people looked to the future with a new optimism for peace and prosperity. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum and demanding change. In Britain, despite food still being rationed, post-war austerity and high taxes, there was an excitement about the future and the 1951 Festival of Britain was a celebration of the nation’s innovations.
Helvetica water biscuits recipe
Using food to describe the experience of typography
The typeface Helvetica was created to be neutral and to have great clarity, but to have no intrinsic meaning of its own. It was intended that it could communicate any message, but without it being influenced by the style of the font in any way. i.e. clear enough to be used across a wide range of applications, but plain and neutral enough that that its sole purpose is to support the message.
My interpretation of Helvetica is to create it from savoury water biscuits which are plain enough that they can be included in a wide range of meals but take on the flavour and style of the food that they accompany. They have a sprinkling of salt to make them tasty enough to eat, and a dash of rosemary for a Swiss Alpine touch. Serve them with cheese, ham or a tasty dip.
Here at Type Tasting I’ve been having conversations about how we respond to different typefaces. Whether we’re type designers, graphic designers or nothing to do with the design industry, all of us are type consumers. We interact with typefaces constantly in our everyday lives and, although it happens on an instinctive level, when we read a word the choice of font also has an effect on us.
In the film short Font Men, type designer Jonathan Hoefler from type foundry H+FJ explains how he and Tobias Frere-Jones feel there’s a “poverty of descriptive terms” for the experience of typography and instead they use qualitative terms that are purely descriptive or that “reference cultural milestones”. He gives the example of describing a typeface as being “too Steven Segal and not Steve McQueen enough”.
I’ve found that an effective parallel is to use food as a way to describe the experience of typography. Doing this has started a well debated conversation and introduced a lexicon of sensory descriptions and metaphors. It interests me that, although the discussions revolve around food, they still sound authentically ‘typography’ and reveal a great deal about our experiences with fonts.
I was invited to talk about this at the recent Type Tuesday at St Bride hosted by Eye Magazine on the topic of Food and Design, the theme of the current issue of Eye. The main speaker was North’s Sean Perkins who took us on an inspiring tour of North’s design for food and hospitality. David Lane and Marina Tweed spoke about creating new alternative food magazine The Gourmand. I explained that Type Tasting began as my ‘grown up gap year’ and was initially based on the idea of wine tastings. I talked about the edible typography project and how it had come about, taking the audience through the ideas behind some of the recipes. After the panel discussion I handed out the edible Helvetica, Baskerville and Futura that I’d baked earlier and answered questions.
Top: Sarah Hyndman talking edible typography under a photo of the font Impact made from dark chocolate and chilli, photo by Eye Magazine.
At Type Tasting I’ve been posing the question “what would type taste like?” I’ve put together a tasting pack to kickstart the discussion featuring Impact as dark chocolate laced with chilli, Helvetica as plain biscuits and Comic Sans as candy melts with popping candy.
The tasting pack comes complete with a chocolate box style description sheet introducing each typeface along with the suggested flavours. What do you think? What would your favourite typefaces taste like? Details of my suggestions with recipes are below…