The Tao of Helvetica

by Matt 14. February 2008 11:35

Want to see an example of good writing? A little while ago, I got rather excited upon seeing a documentary for Helvetica. Yes, the typeface. No, that's not the example of good writing.

Jeff Atwood recently waxed lyrical on the very same subject. And of course, he came over all, you know, erudite and knowledgeable, while I just sounded like a geek. Huh.

At least I was there first? Nope, not even close. The Helvetica-the-movie-the-blog has been posting since January 2007, and it's fascinating.

And I'll tell you why I think it's fascinating. Firstly, it's a classic typeface. Its sheer ubiquity is astonishing - but you don't need me to tell you that. Watch the documentary. It's a very good film - better than you might give it credit for, given its subject.

But that's just a specialisation. This is all about attention to detail. A designer has specifically chosen to use that typeface. It's going to have a huge impact on their design, from branding to readability, portraying a particular message, image, lifestyle. And most people won't notice. It's a nearly invisible detail, and yet it's been lavished with such attention. That's brilliant.

I remember when I first realised this. Not long out of university I was working for a company that did finite element analysis. One of our customers modelled glass bottles, or more accurately, making them. I can still remember being amazed at the amount of effort and variation that can go into making a bottle. A plain, old, anonymous bottle.

It was the secret life of stuff. Everything gets complex the deeper you look.

And it got me hooked on the detail. There's something deeply satisfying about peeking behind the curtain and seeing this at work. Ever noticed how subtly the iPod's backlight fades in and out? How the rear windscreen wiper comes on automatically when it's raining and you switch into reverse?

But more than that, it's affected how I work. If you see how much care there is in everyday stuff, well, you just have to be as considerate in your work, don't you?

So go on, spoil yourself. Go font spotting.

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