Reverting to type

July 11, 2008

As academic ‘content providers’ battle with e-learning gurus, it’s time to reflect on form and meaning – and the ubiquitous, iniquitous Helvetica

This year is the tenth anniversary of my realisation that online learning was becoming like the first Planet of the Apes film. Suddenly, everything seemed inverted. New languages were invented to disorient rather than inform. Well-groomed humanoid creatures shuffled around the scarred landscape with delusions of philosophical greatness.

Let me explain.

After managing – just – to write, manage and teach two online courses in 1997, at the start of the 1998 academic year, I became the recipient of a university-wide e-mail circular that addressed me as “Dear Content Provider”.

At first, I thought it was a misdirected e-mail. After realising that it had been sent to all the poor souls – junior academics all – who had been dumped on the digital heap by their analogue-empowered masters who were preparing their corporations – sorry, universities – for efficiency and productivity through e-ducation, I became stroppy. Always a mistake. But, to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, I was so much older then.

Five seconds after reading the epistle sent to the “Dear Content Provider”, I hit reply and in one of those tremendous e-mails that affords great satisfaction in the writing but then regret the moment it leaves the outbox, I insisted that I wanted to be addressed as a teacher. At a stretch and after a particularly arduous annual staff development review, I will accept the label of co-learner. I will be dragged kicking and screaming by Gordon Brown’s PR consultants before becoming a facilitator. But a content provider? Academics did not complete degrees, write books and articles and mortgage time with friends and families so that some bloke with an internet connection and time on his hands can use a new phrase he invented while talking to his Dungeons and Dragons mates about why women did not appreciate his new goatee.

The goateed Dungeon-master merely replied that I needed to understand my new function in the online learning “community”. WebCT provides the form and format. Academics’ function in this environment is to provide the content to fit the already existing templates. Therefore, content provider is the correct label. Know your role. The title – like the goatee – will grow on you.

That was ten years ago. Language and debates have moved on, but perhaps not as much as we would wish. While the current talk affirms collaboration, the focus is still user-generated content. User-generated form shreds and unsettles the cliché. Yet the most basic knowledge of semiotics confirms that meaning is determined through the relationship between form and content. They are like two sides of the same piece of paper.

Form is the ugly sister to sexy digitised Cinder-content. While WAGs and Sex and the City wannabes confirm their (lack of) fashion and shopping excesses through displaying the names of designers on bags, T-shirts and sunglasses – a victory of content over form – there may be a revival of more subtle style literacies, where the form alone conveys origin and history. Importantly, this rebalancing of form and content, signifier and signified, is coming from the Thunderbird One of creative industries, graphic design.

Graphic designers are visual thinkers, using typography to give language a look and a style. Ellen Lupton explains this process in her fascinating Thinking with Type. A beautiful book, it focuses on form, on the organisation of letters on a page or screen. The careful attention to the spatial organisation of typefaces offers a marriage between Swiss-inflected modernism and idea-based paradigms from American advertising. Put another way, she explores the seductive dance between the modernist abstract and pop cultural simulacrum.

Typography is the workhorse of capitalism. The combination of craft and industrial production in typefaces remind us that – as Lupton states – the alphabet is “a system of abstract relationships”. Transforming Gutenberg’s moveable type in the 15th century into the bending of pixels for screen-based design, graphic designers carry the history of lettering into their daily work, pondering how the shape, weight and impact of type settles in the contemporary context. Attention is placed on how a typeface works in different languages, media platforms and sizes.

Lupton realised that content changes radically through form, with typography becoming “a mode of interpretation”. She offers a sharp critique of those who suggest that web-based readers are less patient than readers of print. “The impatience of the digital reader arises from culture, not from the essential characters of display technologies. Users of websites have different expectations than users of print.”

Reading a book on paper is distinct from reading a book on a screen, but it is a difference of culture, form and literacy. With all the percussive attention to content, we need to think more about the context around our font choice, becoming conscious of how shapes, styles and environments frame literacies. Too often, we take forms generally, and fonts more specifically, for granted. No typeface captures this amnesia of influence through pervasiveness as much as Helvetica.

Designed by Max Miedinger in 1957, Helvetica conveyed the connection with the designer’s homeland by truncating the Latin name for Switzerland. Shunned by many typographers, it is a versatile font and is the visual palette of corporate signage, including Marks & Spencer, the United Nations, American Airlines, Nestlé, Toyota, 3M, ITV and Jeep. If there is a font that captures how our daily life has been corporatised, then it is the frequency of Helvetica. This font conveys how the post-Fordist service economy has homogenised our global and second-tier cities so that they read, look and speak in the same way. Innovative, simple and modern, it also captures the crushing conformity of contemporary life.

It also is the foundation of conflict. The digitised Cuban missile crisis between Microsoft and Apple is waged not only over fonts generally, but Helvetica specifically. It is the default font of Apple, including the iPhone and iPods. Microsoft – although using Helvetica for its own corporate logo – licensed Arial in 1992 for its Windows software, and commissioned Georgia and Verdana as web-based fonts.

Part of this war over form is conveyed through a documentary released last year, titled Helvetica, to celebrate the font’s 50th anniversary. Directed by Gary Hustwit, it is a filmic exploration of how type seeps into our lives. If one film captures the “Michael Moore effect”, then it is this one. The literacy for documentary viewing has increased enormously, mainly due to Moore’s influence in political and popular culture. Moving on from polarised documentaries about gun control, 9/11 or the American health system, there is now a large audience that wishes to explore abstract arguments about style and conflicts about connotations and cultural value. There are new opportunities to create a space for intelligent conversations about popular culture. Hustwit had experience opening up these dialogues as the executive producer for the brilliant film Moog, exploring the analogue synthesiser and the man who built it.

Hustwit’s Helvetica is a remarkable, punchy and challenging film. It is like the font itself, seemingly neutral and understated but conveying so much through the space and silences. There are huge personalities and quiet innovators who rub against each other on the screen. For example, Paula Scher, part of the counter-Helvetica movement in the 1960s and 1970s, resisted the cool evenness of the font, stating: “If you used it that meant you were in favour of the Vietnam War.” The detached, rational and “invisible” font has hooked deeply into urbanity while salving corporate power.

Helvetica is modern. It builds. It smoothes. It is rational, legible and omnipresent. For many designers, that rationality is in itself a radical subjectivity. In the film, graphic designer Wim Crouwel states: “Helvetica was a real step from the 19th-century typeface… We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not the typeface.” For those of us walking through a Helvetica-packed landscape, the consequence of its ubiquity is that the intricacies, meanings and complexities of form have melted into an obsession with content. We all become content providers, because few questions are asked about form providers. Helvetica – as the acceptable face of capitalism – has repressed debate about the function of typefaces in our culture. Hustwit’s film returns the rage to the page and the screen.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of Helvetica and typography is that white space is just as important as the black marks that scar it. The attention to emptiness, edges and margins reminds us to provoke and probe the “neutral” and understated. While we have lived through a decade that trumpeted digitally convergent content, perhaps it is the time to return to the sensualities of form. Graphic designers construct a communication framework of aspiration, desire and hope, connecting the present and the future. Teachers and students can learn through their example.

Films such as Hustwit’s return our thoughts to form. In many ways, Helvetica applies one of Foucault’s extraordinary maxims in The Archaeology of Knowledge, where the theorist realised that “history is that which transforms documents into monuments”. Helvetica holds a similar role. But by bringing back the debate, emotion and connotations to a “neutral” typeface that expresses its history through denial we may fight a war of words – not through the rigidities of content provision, but through the subtlety and ambiguities of form.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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