The first year of my Communications degree I took a class that pretty much everyone agreed was the biggest waste of time, ever. Well it turns out that maybe, perhaps, it wasn't that useless after all. I've always enjoyed good design and I'd like to think I had an eye to say what was good and what wasn't, but it wasn't until we watched a documentary in this particular class, that I realized something incredibly significant: type.
The documentary we watched was "Helvetica" (you can watch it here) and I've since watched it a couple times. Rick Poyner, a British writer on design, graphic design, typography and visual culture says in the film "Maybe the feeling you have when you see particular typographic choices used on a piece of packaging is just 'I like the look of that, that feels good, that's my kind of product.' But that's the type casting its secret spell."
It's hard to watch a documentary like Helvetica and not look at the world in a completely different way. I'm reminded of an interview with Stephen Colbert where he jokingly mentioned his ear and said "once you see it, it can't be unseen!" And I think in a weird way, in my case at least, that can be applied to type as well — it's not something I can just gloss over, it demands to be seen.
It's been said that, "Good typography is invisible," and I think Helvetica is a very good example of this being the case. It's everywhere you look. Anything you wish to look modern and simple and clean, you use Helvetica. Brands like American Apparel, adidas, Sears, TARGET, NIKE, The North Face — they all use Helvetica! And yet do they all convey the same feeling? No! This is in part due to good branding, but can be attributed to Helvetica's design too. It came out of a need for rational typefaces that can be applied to any situation, that's both intelligible and legible.
Most type can be broken down into two categories, serif and sans serif. Serif fonts have the little feet on the bottom or the top of the principle strokes of the letter — in a way it adds a bit of flair, but it also helps guide your eye as you scan a page of text. Sans Serif fonts like Helvetica — especially Helvetica — are stripped down completely and lack these "feet". They're fonts that can mean anything and in that way Helvetica has become ubiquitous. In it's birth it helped designers with anything they needed to spell out loud and clear "modern" and yet now Helvetica has become a default, from sign systems to brands to fonts on computers its always there, but never noticed.
I think typography today is embracing both modernity and fluidity; where before a typeface was an invisible vessel in which to hold something, today it wants to be noticed. Just like a brand wants to standout in it's competition, so does typography and design. The thing that I think separates today's typefaces and designers is that instead of free creative reign, they're really dancing between two lines: modern and garish. And in this endeavour I believe it wants to be noticed.
That being said, maybe I just have an eclectic taste when it comes to typography. I'm neither a sans serif puritan or a serif fanatic, I just like what I like. At the end of the day it's relative, right? That's not to say certain typefaces don't irritate me in certain circumstances. One of my biggest pet peeves is using sans serif fonts that have rounded edges like Comic Sans or Calibri for documents that are supposed to be professional. Just don't do this okay?