Helveticanism
May 2003
Interview for Emigre
Rudy Vanderlans

For issue 65 of Emigre magazine, editor Rudy Vanderlans interviewed some designers about their use of Helvetica. To be honest, we really dislike that question: "Why do you always use Helvetica?". It's a way of approaching our work that is completely alien to us. Although most of our work deals with text, we are usually more interested in the shape of words and sentences than in single letters. To try to see our work as nothing more than a manifestation of a certain typeface seems absurd to us.
(Also, the suggestion that we always use Helvetica is simply not true. We use Helvetica Neue often, and with good reason. But with equally good reason, we have used completely different typefaces, such as Futura, Franklin Gothic, Univers, Courier, etc.).
Having said that, we still feel we have an obligation to explain, when asked, our way of working. It's a silly obligation, as every answer that we give will only lead to more questions. In other words, the clarity we so neurotically thirst for will never be achieved through fuzzy, opaque interviews such as these. But maybe that's a good thing, we don't know.

Anyway, here is the (slightly edited) interview, originally published in issue 65 of Emigre. Questions by Rudy Vanderlans, answers by Experimental Jetset:


1. Why do you use Helvetica?

There are many reasons why we use Helvetica. Each is very different and sometimes seemingly contradictory, and they slowly but constantly change. Some of these reasons may be hard to follow, but we like to believe that it is exactly the complicated nature of our reasoning that, paradoxically, makes our designs so practical and clear.
One of these many reasons involves the neutrality of Helvetica. Of course, we fully realize that no typeface is neutral, and that the objectivity of Helvetica is a myth. But it is exactly this myth that turned Helvetica into one of the most widely used typefaces in the first place. So it is fair to speak of a myth that created its own reality. In that sense the neutrality of Helvetica resembles a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The neutrality of Helvetica, real or imagined, enables us and the user to fully focus on the design as a whole, neutralizing the typographic layer as a way to keep the concept as clear and pure as possible.
There are however cases where, for specific reasons, the concept demands a less neutral typographic layer. In those cases we never hesitate to use other typefaces. But those cases are rare.

2. What do you think Helvetica signifies?

The fact that we ascribe a certain neutrality to Helvetica doesn't mean that we believe that the typeface signifies nothing but itself. But we do think that most of what Helvetica signifies exists primarily within the specific context of graphic design. Helvetica refers mostly to graphic design itself. And this self-referentiality is yet another reason why we use Helvetica.

In our work, we constantly try to underline the physical qualities of graphic design. By stressing the idea of design as matter, rather than as an accumulation of images, we try to get away from the alienation of visual culture.
Just to be clear, when we talk about 'images' we don't literally mean illustrations or pictures; we mean representations, or projections. For example, a 'grungy' typeface that is used specifically to attract a 'grungy' audience is for us an image or a 'representation'.
(By the way, we have nothing against grungy typefaces per se. When the inner-logic of a certain design demands a specific typeface, so be it. But if that grungy typeface is used only to reflect a certain target-audience's presumed lifestyle, then we have a problem with it. Because in that case graphic design is reduced to a representative, immaterial layer that hides more than it reveals.)
For us, one of the many ways to underline the physical, material qualities of a design is through the use of self-reference. The referring of an object to itself or to its own context can be seen as a form of 'materialization'. To quote British conceptual art collective Art & Language: "in order to perforate art with reality, it [art] has to be folded back into itself." We think the same can apply to graphic design. Using Helvetica, with its self-referential qualities, helps us create designs that function as a part of reality instead of as a representation of reality.

So in short, one of the reasons why we use Helvetica is this self-referential side.

3. Isn't everything you create a representation of some sort? My words are a representation of my thoughts. My thoughts a representation of my experiences...

Yes, and your experiences are formed by the world around you. We agree. But let's extend that line of thinking. Now imagine that the world around you is trying to be a representation of your thoughts. Wouldn't it just go round and round then, as you will only experience your own representation? We're not against representation in general. But we do think that a material environment that just tries to represent its audience will lead to some kind of cultural degeneration.
In our view, design should have a certain autonomy, an inner-logic that exists independently of the tastes and trends of so-called target audiences. As the ways to measure the taste of the public are becoming more refined every day, culture is in real danger of turning into a gigantic mirror that offers nothing but a false reflection.
(By the way, when we talk about autonomy it has nothing to do with whether an object is functional or not. For example, a paperclip represents absolutely nothing outside itself. It has a strong, almost hermetic, inner-logic. But despite this, or, in our opinion, because of this, it is regarded as one of the most functional objects on earth.)
And this loss of autonomy is not only happening in design. Political parties, for example, are becoming more and more populistic, losing the inner-logic of their ideologies, only trying to reflect what the voters want on a day to day basis. So instead of politicians presenting a certain viewpoint where you can vote for or against, they will first find out what the public wants and then form their viewpoint, not based on a certain belief but just on daily trends.

4. Do you use Helvetica to show allegiance to a certain approach or style or to a certain ideology?

There are without doubts links between our use of Helvetica and the fact that we are extremely sympathetic towards a lot of the ideas of past modernist movements. But these links are more complicated and indirect than some would expect. Our use of Helvetica is not some sort of direct formal tribute to the aesthetics of modernism. It's not as simple as that. We have no affinity with formalistic retro-modernism at all, as we find this kind of retro-modernism too post-modern for our taste.
If there is indeed a connection between our use of Helvetica and modernism, it can be found in our ideas of design as matter. For us, one of the core beliefs of modernism is the idea of 'makeability'; the concept of changing society through changing material circumstances. Our own attempts to rematerialize graphic design, by using Helvetica for instance, can be seen as a manifestation of our own belief in this 'makeability'.

5. I'm not sure if I understand this. It would be easy to distill from this answer that you are saying that you hope to change society simply by using Helvetica. But I'm thinking that's not entirely what you're saying. Or are you?

We agree that this is where our reasoning gets complicated and we're not sure if we completely understand it ourselves. But by underlining the physical proportions, qualities and inner-logic of our designs we try to stress the fact that they are objects. This may sound obvious and futile and not very revolutionary, but it's our humble way of resisting to dissolve into a immaterialized visual culture in which there are only representations and the object is completely disconnected from its image. We try to go against this alienation by focusing on the idea of design as matter.
One way how we try to stress the idea of design as an object is through this notion of self-reference, which we discussed earlier. By referring to itself or its context the object gains some kind of 'self-awareness', it becomes an object-in-itself. We're not saying everything should posses this self-referentiality, it's just one way to achieve this materiality. And one of the many possible ways to achieve this self-referentiality is the use of Helvetica, even though it plays only a small part in this scheme.

6. Can you give me a more specific example of a piece you've designed that accomplishes this.

Last time you visited us we showed you this 'four-sided' letterhead we designed in 1998 (See GSPJ / Graphic identity). It showed the names of four different people who work together in the same space, but not necessarily with each other, on one piece of paper. The names were printed on the top front, bottom front, top back and bottom back. This way it could be used in four different ways, depending on how you turned the paper. By using all four sides of the paper, we tried to underline the physical proportions of the design.
The typography (Helvetica) was used in a non-representative way. A representative way to use typography here would be to do some 'research' of what a certain 'target-audience' wanted, and then try to find a typeface that would illustrate that, that would reflect that certain feeling or mood back to this audience. We would never do that.

The reason we used Helvetica had to do with the fact that it didn't interfere with the concept. A more expressive typeface would have destroyed it. But also, the fact that Helvetica refers mostly to graphic design itself turned the letterhead into an almost 'archetypical' letterhead, which made the concept of four letterheads printed on one piece of paper even clearer.
We didn't use the piece of paper as a neutral background to just print a representative image on, neglecting its physical qualities. We tried to design a letterhead that would work as an object. A piece of paper that wouldn't deny its role as a piece of paper.

7. Would you agree that there is a renewed interest in Helvetica at the moment?

As a matter of fact, we don't think that there is a renewed interest in Helvetica at all. Although we're not particularly interested in today's trends and fashions in graphic design, from our point of view the revival of Helvetica reached its peak five, six years ago (say, around 1997). What we see now is more a swing to the other side: to more ornamental, decorative typefaces. [Editorial note: this interview took place in 2003, four years before the movie Helvetica created a true Helvetica craze].

8. Are you familiar with the original ideology behind the design of Helvetica? As a designer, do you think it is important to be aware of this original ideology?

We are aware of the history and original ideology, but if even we weren't, it wouldn't make our use of Helvetica less valuable or honest or effective. The question implies that ideology is something that exists outside reality; that theory is something that exist outside practice. Our way of thinking is very different. Ultimately the ideology of Helvetica is an intrinsic quality of the typeface itself. Using Helvetica is enough. That's all the ideology one need.

(For some strange reason this question - or what it implies - reminded us of a certain illustration in 'Days of War, Nights of Love', this excellent book written and published by CrimeThink, an anarchist collective from the U.S. The illustration shows a barebacked chained man, being lashed with a whip by another man. Superimposed on the chained man is the word YOU. On the whip, it says LANGUAGE, and superimposed on the guy holding the whip is the word IDEOLOGY).

9. Do you think that the way Helvetica is used by yourself and others – often very stripped down and restrained, almost default-like – is an easy way out typographically? Does it in any way signal a general disinterest in the finer details and art of typography? Or does it signify something else entirely?

To suggest that the way we use Helvetica is an easy way out typographically is ridiculous. We spend an enormous amount of time spacing, kerning, lining and positioning type. The fact that we use only a small variety of typefaces demands a certain discipline, a skillful precision, a focus on the finer details. It's certainly not that a-different-typeface-for-every-occasion attitude. Now, that would be an easy way out.
When a composer writes a piece for a limited amount of musicians, would that be an easy way out? When a director writes a play for a limited amount of actors, would that be an easy way out? Of course not. Likewise, designing with a limited amount of typefaces is definitely not an easy way out. To suggest that it is would be a travesty.

10. Any final words?

Rudy, you probably think we're completely out of our minds, as we realize all of the above might sound pretty bizarre. But as long as our complicated ideas translate into practical and functional designs, we're happy.

Experimental Jetset, February 2003

Related link: Emigre 65


Afterword 1

Two years after this interview was published, we were approached by Kai Bernau to participate in his Neutral project (2005). In the e-mail conversation we had with Kai (which can be read here), we revisited (and somewhat nuanced) the Emigre interview:

"We still believe what we said in that interview, but maybe some of the words could have been better chosen. For example, when we wrote that the neutrality of Helvetica is a 'myth', we meant it's first of all a social convention. To us, a myth is the same thing as a constructed, social fact, so in that sense we're saying now the same thing as we said two years ago, but we do agree the word 'myth' is a bit more confusing".

A few weeks after this e-mail conversation, we explained our views on neutrality further in a short interview (related to Kai's Neutral project) in German graphic design magazine Page:

"As we already explained, we think of neutrality more as a convention, as a 'silent agreement'. So to us, a 'neutral typeface' is not a typeface that is intrinsically neutral, but a typeface that a certain group of people, at a certain moment, choose to perceive as neutral. So in short, it is a typeface that does possess certain expressive characteristics, but for a number of cultural reasons, we (as society) choose to 'filter out' (to neglect) these characteristics when we perceive the typeface". (...)
"In our view, the fact that something is neutral doesn't mean that it doesn't possess certain expressive characteristics; it simply means that, because of several cultural reasons, we (as society) choose to neglect this characteristics. Take for example the 'white cube' model: the idea that art can be best experienced in a white space. In this model, the colour white is seen as the most neutral. Which is of course nonsense: the colour white has a lot of different meanings and connotations. It's an highly symbolic colour. But somehow we (as society) made the agreement (consciously or subconsciously) that if a painting is installed on a white wall, we ignore the meaning of white, and we concentrate fully on the painting. (While if the painting would be installed on a green wall, there's a big chance we will somehow try to connect the meaning of the colour green with the meaning of the painting, and we will probably end up asking ourselves whether the wall is part of the artwork)". (...)
"In other words, the white wall isn't neutral in itself: it's neutral because we, the viewers, choose not to think of the meaning of the colour white while looking at the painting. In the same way, a typeface isn't neutral in itself ; it's neutral because we choose not to think of its expressive characteristics while looking at it".

Afterword 2

Re-reading this interview ten years after we wrote it, we are painfully aware that interviews in general, and more specifically 'our' interviews, date really, really fast. Not that we change our opinions so lightly – as a matter of fact, our opinions are quite stable (or so we like to believe). But the ways in which we try to formulate these opinions change quite often. We constantly need new and better words to formulate our views – it's almost as if all these words are in orbit, circling around something that remains impossible to fully articulate, at least for us. So although our underlying views have remained pretty much the same throughout the years, our words are always changing, to the point where they sometimes even seem to contradict each other. That's why it's usually quite awkward to re-read old interviews, or old texts in general – we seldom agree with what we said. So why do we publish these old texts and interviews, when we know they don't necessarily represent our current ways of describing our opinions? We think the main reason for that is exactly because we want to show these changes. By publishing these old texts, we hope to capture some of the shifts that occur from interview to interview – not shifts in our opinions, but rather shifts in our way of translating these opinions into words.

Regarding Helvetica: if we quickly had to describe our views on Helvetica, we would start by saying that, even while we have used Helvetica continuously (but certainly not exclusively, as some people like to believe), our views on Helvetica have constantly changed – and are still changing.

But one thing is certain – we never saw Helvetica as inherently neutral. What interested us in the beginning of our 'career' (if you can call it that) was not so much the 'neutrality' of Helvetica, but the fact that people perceived the typeface as such (as being neutral). We thought it was interesting that the general idea of Helvetica as a 'neutral' typeface was almost a 'self-fulfulling myth'. We realized that the so-called neutrality of Helvetica was most of all a convention, an artificial construction. And since, at that time, we were quite interested in all these notions of formats, standards and archetypes, we found it worthwhile to explore exactly this idea: the idea of Helvetica as a standard, as a norm. But we never regarded Helvetica as 'neutral' in itself. We always realized it was a typeface with a certain 'baggage', with a history, with a narrative – in fact, a typeface that's far from neutral.

After that, there was a period in which we became more and more interested in Helvetica as an 'iconic' typeface, as a typeface referring to the medium of graphic design itself. This was during a period in which we tried to explore the notion of 'self-referentiality': graphic design referring to itself, to its own medium, and to its own material dimension. We believed that, by using Helvetica, we could demonstrate the fact that graphic design was most of all a 'human-made' construction: ink printed on paper. A construction that's made by hand, and thus can also be changed by hand. By using such a 'self-conscious' typeface as Helvetica, we wanted to make the reader/viewer conscious of the materiality of graphic design itself. Together with some other graphic techniques (the use of folds and cuts, showing the background paper through the use of empty space, etc. etc.), we saw the use of such an 'iconic' typeface as Helvetica almost as a sort of 'Brechtian' device, to keep the viewer/reader aware of the medium itself, of the material base underlying it all.

But all the uses we mention above were still based on some sort of 'cold' conceptual relationship with Helvetica. While, more and more, we started to realize that our relationship with Helvetica also had a strong emotional dimension. That's when we started to explore the notion of Helvetica as an authentic 'mother tongue', almost a 'folk art' of the Netherlands. Fact is, we grew up in the '70s, during a period in which the visual landscape of the Netherlands was dominated by designers such as Wim Crouwel, Ben Bos, etc. Our school books, the stamps, the telephone books, etc.: a large portion of the environment around us was designed in this typical, social-democratic, late-modernist way. So more and more, we realized that we still are typical products of this specific environment; and we realized that this whole late-modernist language, of which Helvetica always has been a big part, is in fact OUR language – the language that made us who we are. So we feel that we now have the right, or almost the duty, to explore this language, to expand it, to add our own accents to it, to tell our own stories with it. And that is where we are now.

So yeah, there you have it. Three phases we went through – each phase representing a different perspective on Helvetica.

Filed under:

Texts / interviews

( c ) 1997 – 2017