Sunday, 27 February 2011

Helvetica's last words

Ladies and gentleman, today I have to tell you something very sad. For, it seems to me, a good friend has passed away. That friend is Helvetica, my all-time favourite font and the most used (commercially) typeface of all time, ever. Made in the 50s by the Haas type foundry, and used in branding from M&S to T-Mobile and dozens of others, Helvetica is an important part of our everyday life, though most people don't know it. It's always there to tell you to buy more M&S food or that there's a new offer from T-Mobile. It warns you to keep out or beware of electricity pylons. It directs you on streetsigns. It's everywhere, it's trustworthy, it's stable and it's reliable. It's Helvetica.

But it's time that we moved on, typographically speaking. I'm talking of a sans-serif revolution, forefronted by the greatest type designers currently working, Hoefler and Frere-Jones. These two released one of their best fonts, by name of Gotham, a few years ago and I believe this is forefronting a typographical revolution. I'll still use Helvetica, as will everyone else - for now anyway - but I want to make you aware of this imminent and large-scale change that I think is happening. Well, it is happening, but I think it will grow to be bigger than it is.

So here's a little clipping of Gotham, credits to H&FJ. I'd buy it, but sadly it's way too expensive for any typography fan and exclusive to the budgets of magazines and design agencies.


Gotham, inspired by the 'American vernacular', is sharp, strong and modern yet with a clear US-40s vibe to it that will allow it to sit in a less modern setting. It's not universal like Helvetica is, not bland like Univers is, not too abstract like Avant-Garde or Future, and more stylish than Gill Sans. I like to think of it as the Eames of sans-serifs. And it's had a large impact. I can't tell you that it's being used in more and more places now, because I don't know how to define it from other similar fonts, but that type of sans-serif is becoming more and more common.

Let's take a look at the logo of one of the leading menswear designers, Tom Ford. Yeah, the guy who presented an award at the BAFTAs and held a womenswear show but only invited one photographer and no bloggers. That guy. Well, here's his current logo. Now look at his older logo:

Notice any difference? Yeah, the font is different. The older logo has our best friend Helvetica - noticeable by the classic R-form (more on that later), and the current logo is what I hereby christen as a 'modern sans serif'. Maybe even Gotham, though I believe the M-form is different. 'Modern sans serif?' you ask, 'aren't all sans-serifs modern?'. Ah, my dear fellow, that is where you are wrong. This is what I'm trying to say with this post: sans-serifs have been around for nearly a century now, so we can't perceive all of them as being 'modern'. At some point we need to separate the sans-serifs of the past with a new wave of sans-serifs that are in use by the most fashionable designers and brands (ie. Tom Ford, also Michael Kors and various other fashion brands), and I call them 'modern' sans-serifs.

These fonts are most recognisable by that simple yet bold R-form, a letterform which I find myself more and more attracted to every time I see it in use. It's so modern, that's all I can call it. Modern, bold, and strong. Strong is a big thing to identify about it and the rest of 'modern' sans-serif typefaces, that's what they're beginning to hold over classical sans-serifs, and why I have to say that Helvetica is looking increasingly weak and old-fashioned. Look, let me explain with a brief history of the R-form...


So here is the R-form (bear in mind I'm talking constantly about the capital/majuscule R-form) in various Helvetica weights - bold, regular, light and ultra-light. It's not a badly designed font - of course not, it's one of the greatest ever made - but it does have it flaws, that I have only discovered after using it so much. And one of those flaws is the signiature R-form. Alright in the bold weight, a maybe even in regular, but when we get to ultra-light that letterform is looking weak and not at all elegant. In an italicised weight, it looks even worse as the leg of the R sticks out, still vertical as in the regular weights but now looking diagonal to the back stem. It can't be helped with that sort of leg on the R, but it still doesn't look very good. It's no wonder M&S occasionally use a similar ultralight sans-serif for their branding, one with a modern R-form, and swap between the two. Risky, but necessary if you want your branding free of that increasingly dated R-form.


Here we can see Helvetica at the end of the evolution of type: starting with Hoefler Text (made by Jonathan Hoefler from H&FJ), standing for a classical serif font, then with Didot for that art deco Didone period in the 20s and 30s, then to Clarendon for the league of slab serifs in the late 20th century. Sure, Helvetica is a bit out of place in a serif font line-up, but it shows its roots. Classical serif fonts have that straight R leg that we recognise in Gotham, kinda, but since then they moved onto a more intricate, curled form, evident in both Didones and slab-serifs. That form then moved straight into the sans-serif movement in the 40s and 50s, because both Univers and Helvetica have a reduced form of the curled leg, and that's only one of many old-fashioned stylings that can be found in Helvetica. It may look modern in most circumstances, but in actual fact it shows its age quite a lot!

Now let's look at Helvetica, specifically its R-form, as part of the sans-serif evolution. Sans-serifs as we know them today are divided into three main types: humanist, geometric and grotesque. The humanist font shown here is the British classic Gill Sans - used for BBC News graphics and designed by Eric Gill. I once when to a Gill Sans-themed Pizza Express, but that's another matter. Gill Sans' R-form has a very wide leg, one of its most recognisable features, so this is more related to that swash leg we see in Hoefler Text in the previous graphic. Our geometric sans-serifs are Futura and Avant-Garde, and in these fonts the designers have explored using straight legs to balance the rounded form of the small bowl (loop) at the top of the R. This form can start to look a bit like the handwritten R-form, as if the letter was drawn with one single stroke, but even this can be manipulated, as in the distinctive unattached leg in Avant-Garde.

However, compared to these other forms of sans-serif, grotesques like Helvetica and its counterpart Univers are staring to look aged and unbalanced. Their forms are too classic and show too many signs of traditional letterforms and the remains of serifs (such as on the tail of the lowercase A in Helvetica regular), even though Helvetica is a massive improvement on the older Univers, which keeps almost exclusively to classical proportions (ie. width of R is half width of O). I have also included the only example of a 'modern' sans-serif I own; some display font called 'Hit the Road Regular' which is the closest I can come to Gotham without spending a load of money on H&FJ's typeface. You can see it's smaller - that's only unique to Hit the Road, it's got a load of problems with it (especially kerning), but even without it is very bold and intense when compared to the etherial Avant-Garde or towering Helvetica R-forms.

I'm not saying that Helvetica's typographic reign is over. It certainly isn't. I want to make you aware that Helvetica won't last forever, and that - as with everything - it has its flaws. So it's about time we thought about where we're going to move on to, typographically. And I say we move onto 'modern' sans-serifs, that's what I find myself being dragged to. Rest assured, Helvetica will last another 10 years at least, but today we see Univers slipping by the sidelines (HSBC's branding is the only important current use I can remember) and Helvetica is walking the same road as Univers; they're in the same boat. So sure, let's enjoy Helvetica for now, but let's keep our typographic senses trained on the future. Mid-century modernism won't last forever.

~John

Monday, 14 February 2011

Forever Alone?

Ah, it's Valentine's Day. That holiday invented by the greeting card conglomerates to get us all to send meaningless cards to one another and celebrate how awesome our lives our and how awesome our partners are, though we all secretly know they're not all that good and the divorce papers are somewhere in the third drawer of my desk, must get around to signing them and letting her know at some point. "Our marriage is on the rocks" is a commonly used term, especially in Denmark (with the highest divorce rate in Europe), though there's some stupid story in the Bible that tells us rocks are better to build on than sand. Though I'll admit I've never heard someone say "our marriage is on the sand", though I think there are several 80s romance films that would say otherwise.

So how did I spend today? Trapped under a pile of Valentine's Day cards, scrawled over by a myriad of John-hungry girls professing their love for me? Nah, I got one parcel today, and that was from Harry - and no letter, may I add, I wrote you one! Jeez, the things I do for you Harry m'boy. Anywho, no. No cards. No love professions. No John-hungry girls. No fanatics crowding outside my house. To be honest, I didn't expect them. But it would have been a fun morning nonetheless. So I spent my Valentine's Day afternoon with one person in a room, with much intimate contact.

My dentist.

He wears awesome glasses, though.

And I'll conclude this fantastic Valentine's Day with a full hour of heavy Minecrafting. Boy, I love my life. Before I end this already poor post (just to archive this particular February the 14th, may be some sort of tradition after last year), I present you with this handy Venn diagram:


And this:
Well I hope you guys all had a better Valentine's Day than me (and my dentist). Arrivaderci, or - as the Danes would say - "Darling, get the divorce papers!"

~John

ps. No, not intimate in that way you sick bastards. You're lucky I didn't say 'spent the afternoon with another person, one of us with a bodily appendage in the other's mouth', I'm not that dirty. Oh shi-

pps. I made a microscale town hall. Just to prove that my Flickr account isn't dead.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Wossup #1

A possible new format for some regular posts, covering most of what I've been up to recently.


READING Wallpaper* Magazine, latest issue. It's all about fashion this time - yeah, I mean all about fashion, even the architectural articles are about fashion architecture, or some such thing. It's a bit too much for me in some places, but the majority of it is very, very interesting and as useless as the included fold-out poster of next season's myriad of colours is (my sister says, quite rightly, 'so isn't that just all the colours, then?'), it's fun to look at and admire. Great Newspaper section, too. Not my fave issue of the ever-changing mag, but certainly one to refer back to in the future.

WATCHING Glee, sadly. I began watching the second season a few weeks ago high on anticipation of the continuation of one of the greatest comedy/musical TV programmes to grace our screens in years. Now, four weeks later, I am left feeling very disappointed and even a bit angry at the programmemakers for such a poor seriesquel. Sure, the songs are as good as ever, but the writers couldn't be bothered to make them fit into the plot any more. They were songs for the sake of songs, for the sake of having 'Billionaire' in there. Plus, everyone's character has changed such that it seems like some moronic writer has taken a look back on season 1 and accentuated the personalities to the unrealistic extremes. Gone are the cleverly written one-theme-episodes, gone is the satire on High School Musical and self-satire, and we're left with a regular drama with a script so dry it's approaching the level of other boring US soaps. Sure, I enjoyed the Rocky Horror Show episode on monday (It's just a jump to the left...), but my standards and expectations are now considerably lower than before. Shame, really.

LISTENING TO 'Price Tag' by Jessie J, who has exploded onto the music scene like a pinless grenade of great music, and thank goodness for that - she had so much to live up to. Though her first single 'Do it like a dude' is totally not her (originally written for Rihanna, doncha know), 'Price Tag' is something I heard in acoustic on Later Live with Jools Holland months ago and have been looking forward to the release of ever since. And with BoB thrown into the equation for a bit of rap relief at the end? Great, great song. And it went straight to number 1, as well. Just as I predicted.

ADMIRING Arne Jacobsen's architecture, as always. I reread the book I bought at the Dansk Design Centre about him today; he never fails to inspire me. His hanging plants and brilliantly restrained yet elegant architectural features give projects like the Royal Hotel, Copenhagen and Danmarks Nationalbank that Jacobsen trademark. A trademark that is forever amazing me, goddamit Arne! Why you so good?

Rødovre town hall, by Jacobsen - naturally
DRAWING furniture, for once. Curiously, a flash of inspiration in that great inspiration vessel, the bath (gotta love Aristotle) caused me to go on a creative streak and design a chair, a table, a dresser and a system of lights. I've made a model of the chair, but I'm awaiting more card so I can create the others to the same scale. Chuck 'em in a card interior (quite a small scale, by the way - not full-size!) and snap a photo, and maybe you'll get to see them. For the moment, I'm brainstorming most of the pieces in my Moleskine and designing the others to be printed out pronto. Exciting stuff, if I ever finish it.

WEARING new glasses, yay. This time I wanted to go for something a bit more hip, more trendy, but not too trendy - dudes, I'm not a mindless trend follower. Well, OK, I usually am. But if I had my way and a lot more drive to buy clothes, I wouldn't be. Anywho, new glasses. Still wearing into them, nasty headgrabbing things. Ouch.

PROMOTING a new project on my Behance Network profile, a packaging design study for third-world medicine distribution by Japanese Industrial Standards. Using their 2005 logo (on the Unicode character set, don't sue me bro), a fun smiling face graphic and a neat modern sans-serif font, I've created a whole new brand and product range:


See all the photos and details here.

PHOTOGRAPHING not much at the moment. My photography GCSE assessment has put me off photography for a while, and my recent furniture-designing and architecture passion flares have distracted me even more. I'm also frustrated, taking photos of everyday moments, when I keep telling myself in my coursework that photography is art, and pre-conceived photosets examining artistic themes are the only way to separate my work from that of the common camera-wielder. It's really been bothering me, but I shouldn't force myself into photography when I'm not truly inspired at this moment in time. My creativity is a precarious balance between furniture design, graphic design, architecture, photography and - occasionally - writing. I should just go with the flow and do whatever I'm inspired about, but with another art GCSE photography project looming over my head it's getting awful difficult to put photography to the side - even when I don't have any inspiration.


Maybe I'll make more like this sometime soon, every month or so. I'd do it every week but my interests don't change that quickly. Feel free to use this template, too, if you like.

~John

Six style questions

Recently I've been plagued by these several key, unanswerable questions about style and fashion and how our preferred aesthetic styles (in both fashion and design) change over time, and between individuals. So here's a list of those questions, unanswered, to be discussed at a later point. Alternatively, if you have any thoughts, comment below.
  1. Does anything ever go out of style, or are the more unfashionable styles just seen as pushing the boundaries?
  2. By predicting next season's styles, colours and fashion, are we in fact setting those styles? Does that count as the natural progression of fashion in society?
  3. Can one person only design in one style, or can a change occur? If so, is that new style strictly theirs, since they're not 'born with it'?
  4. Can one person only pull of one style, or can they pull of many? Is there one specific style that is 'perfect' for them, appropriate for their personality as well as looks? Perhaps the 'perfect' style doesn't fit their personality.
  5. Similarly, do styles only work for certain people? Can we define or appreciate styles if they only work with a tiny percentage of the population?
  6. In terms of fashion, a style is set as an outfit. But can you set a style in an outfit with simply one item? Or do you have to give two items to set the relationship between their styles, creating a new style (or if they're the same style, confirm that that style is the style for the outfit)? Can any combination of two items act to create an outfit style that would work with other, similar items? Or will some pairs of items just never 'go' together?
Just a couple of my thoughts these past days. More posts coming soon, guys, I realise that I am in fact wasting a lot of my creativity by not putting it into a regular post every day, maybe I'll try an every-week posting project sometime soon. Sometime soon...


~John