Not My Type

Writer James Button Published Four pages of The Age newspaper on 13 September 2003.

Stephen Banham works on the seventh floor of a 1930s art deco building in Flinders Lane. To get there, take the cramped, rumbling lift, then turn left down the gloomy wood-panelled corridor. There’s no louvred window or ceiling fan but by the time you find his secluded door you feel as if you’ve reached the office of private eye Sam Spade. Which is fitting, because it was here that Banham uncovered a plot by one typeface to take over the city and the world.

In winter, two years ago, Banham put on a thick coat and began to shadow his suspect. He started on the corner of Flinders and DeGraves streets and, heading north, walked through the lanes and arcades, Myer and Melbourne Central – right up to LaTrobe. As he went he noted in a sketch book every instance of typeface on every sign he could find, on shops, posters, perfume counters, cafes… A nasty wind whipped through the lanes, shopkeepers gave him funny looks. He could only do the walk on weekends so it took him two months, but by the end he had his proof. Of the 1000 examples of type he collected, nearly 30 per cent were in one font alone. Banham published his findings in a small book called Grand. It amounts to the prosecution case against a 46-year old Swiss font, with no distinguishing features, known as Helvetica.

This is the story of the best-known typeface in the western world, after Times Roman, and of the Melbourne man who put it on trial. It is a story printed in light – it’s about fashion and style – but also in bold, since it’s about obsession, power and love. It spans five continents and 2000 years, and it begins in 1957, in the small Swiss town of Munchenstein…

The Defendant

It was here that the famous Swiss foundry, Haas, commissioned its designer, Max Miedinger, to produce a new typeface. The foundry’s clients, mainly printers, wanted a font that was clear and completely legible. And Miedinger delivered, designing a face that was so neutral the foundry borrowed the Latin word for Switzerland, Helvetia, bent it a little and created…

Helvetica. It’s been called “the faceless typeface”. Note the cool, clean lines, the absence of flair or expression. For this reason it can be hard to spot in the street. Look for the rare flourishes: the square dots on the i and j, or the small tail and the pregnant body, or bowl, on the a. Designers like it because its small ascenders and descenders – the vertical strokes on letters such as b, d and q – allow them to pack a lot of copy onto a page. Yet since the bowl of each letter is large, the text is easy to read. Helvetica admirers also say the capital R has a lovely curved leg.

Today Munchenstein, tomorrow the world. In the 1960s Helvetica became the face of Lufthansa, Toyota, Sanyo and Saab, Pan Am, Comme Des Garcons and Evian, the New York, Tokyo and Moscow subways. The United States tax department used it, so did the Italian Communist Party. The Beatles – “the Helvetica of pop”, as one Dutch design firm called them – printed their Double White album in Helvetica.

As design went digital in the 1980s, Helvetica became the default typeface for the new Apple Mac computer. In the ’90s it and Times Roman became the staple fonts of the Net. And in 1982 Bill Gates cloned Helvetica and produced a bastard child, Arial, which has none of Helvetica’s elegance but all of its dominance. Arial, Microsoft’s default typeface, now covers computer screens across the globe.

Australia, too, has fallen to what Norwegian writer Lars Muller calls “Helvetica’s unparalleled march of triumph”. Architects, developers, clothing houses, Saba, Mirvac, BMW – the face of fashion is Helvetica, especially the anorexic Helvetica Thin. In 1994 the Commonwealth Bank unveiled its new logo, in Helvetica. Whole magazines, such as Desktop and the (sydney) magazine, a lifestyle glossy produced by The Sydney Morning Herald, are printed in Helvetica. Corporate reports, government documents, the super tram stops in the city – there’s even a Helvetica cafe above Flagstaff Station. Helvetica is the typeface of our time. Helvetica rules. And to Stephen Banham that is not OK.

The Prosecutor

Banham opens the door of his studio wearing a black t-shirt that says ‘Helvetica Thin _ Just Say No’. He must be feeling mellow today. He has left his ‘Death to Helvetica’ t-shirt at home. Banham is a graphic designer who, among other work, produced material for the Australian pavilion at the recent Venice Biennale. He also lectures part-time in communication design at RMIT. He is 34, married, with interests in politics, reggae and jazz – and one consuming passion. He is obsessed, he says, with type and writing, with the 26 characters that make up the written world. Banham designs type and collects it. He keeps newspaper photos showing the type on placards at rallies, and the notes people leave on windscreens to say the meter is broken. He has a stash of old bookmakers’ betting slips – he loves their curling characters and is sad the bookies now print slips by computer. He found an old bingo sign, with numbers 1 to 99 marked in white on a black board, while rummaging for bits of type in a tip. He is, you might say, a man of letters. He has published two series of small books on typography, Qwerty and Ampersand. He once asked 600 Melbourne school children to draw corporate logos – their remarkably accurate copies, he says, show how corporations and the graphic designers who work for them are getting into the heads of the young. He even designed a children’s game, Typotronic, in which players make words from Melbourne signs: for Pelligrinis, the American Donut van at Victoria Market, Dinkum Pies in Block Arcade. Why does he love type so much? He smiles: clearly he’s been asked the question many times. ”Its beauty, its simplicity, its meaning,” he says. ”Its history. Its human connection. The big picture and the small, together.”

In search of the big and the small, he walks around the city a lot. He finds striking signs – graffiti in North Melbourne, type from an old biscuit factory in Port Melbourne – and puts them on his studio website along with a map showing how to get there. One day he discovered that if you stand across Fitzroy Street from Leo’s Spaghetti Bar in St Kilda, you see that the wall, windows and inside bench all combine to make the word, LEOS. ”It’s great,” he says ”If you eat your spaghetti at the front bench, you’re actually eating off the middle stroke of the letter E.” But none of these projects, however curious, comes close to his pursuit of Helvetica. He opens a folder and spreads its contents across the table. There’s a brochure for Volvo and a full-page Age ad spruiking upmarket apartments at the Queen Victoria development. A page torn from Good Weekend advertises Giotto suits at Myer, while a brochure for Aveda Concept Spa, a posh health retreat, promises a ”multi dimensional holistic experience”. There are beautiful faces, a young woman in a hammock sipping coffee from a mug, and the call to a richer life through consumption: “New life for the city!” “Life’s a journey.” “Relax the Rules.” The advertising images are all elegant and clean. Their thin, streamlined typeface is Helvetica. Banham picks up more brochures, for Ausdance, Musica Viva, the Melbourne Film and Fashion Festivals, the Jewish Museum, the God’s Kitchen dance party tour (“Dance music is one of the worst culprits,” he says), and a meditation workshop called Consciousness and the Graphic Designer. In most material the paper is glossy, the images slick and smart. And the typeface? Helvetica.

The organisations behind the ads are diverse: corporate, community, counter-cultural. But to Banham their sales pitches all have a corporate feel. He holds up a brochure for Open Channel, the alternative video and television production house.” Open Channel are all about diversity and opening media up to more people. But look at the cold aesthetic in this brochure. It’s so lifestyle it could be an ad for apartments at Docklands.” Banham says there’s nothing wrong with Helvetica, used in moderation. But he doesn’t think it is. Instead, he says, using Helvetica has become an easy, lazy way to look cool. This overuse becomes a kind of culture killer, swamping type variety with the bland face of globalisation. Banham calls it ”the Esperanto of typefaces, based on the same flawed theory that everyone should talk to each other in the same language.” To make his point, Banham has spoken at graphic design forums, lobbied architects – often wanton Helvetica users – and sent ‘Death to Helvetica’ stickers free of charge to anyone, anywhere, who wants one. He says he gets requests for t-shirts from as far afield as China; a New Zealand band named itself Death to Helvetica. He has inspired some people and, given Helvetica’s popularity, probably irritated just as many. “Jesus Christ, it’s a bloody typeface! Why would you read all that into it?”gasps Richard Henderson when I put Banham’s argument to him. Henderson a designer of 30 years standing, agrees that people are ‘a bit sick’ of Helvetica but says it is ubiquitous for a good reason: “It’s a classic, clear design, the sesame seed bun in the burger.” He finds the idea that the face is infected by a corporate sensibility absurd. And when Banham sent his anti-Helvetica material to the Dutch designers Experimental Jetset, he got this email back: “To say we are less than amused about your views on helvetica is an understatement – we disagree with everything,” they wrote, adding that Banham’s tone was “childish and rancorous”. “Needless to say”, says Banham, “I didn’t get a Christmas card from them.” Then there was the ‘Death’ t-shirt Banham sent Lars Muller. Muller is a Norwegian publisher who last year wrote the gospel: Helvetica, Homage to a Typeface. “I sing the praises of Helvetica,” ’ it begins. Helvetica is “the shift worker and solo entertainer of typefaces, so ubiquitous it is not be baited. “He didn’t reply at all,” says Banham, sounding crestfallen. ”I thought I’d at least get some hate mail.” But Banham has fans, too. “I get very het up about this,” says James de Vries, director of Sydney firm DeLuxe (which redesigned The Age last year). “Helvetica is a beautiful design. But it’s become shorthand for a stylish minimalism. It signifies high style, but instead of somebody actually having to produce high style they just apply Helvetica and whammo, the product is stylish.” De Vries thinks the trend is leading “to a homogenisation of design…Stephen’s value is in making people go back and ask why they’re doing what they’re doing.” And in January an interview with Banham written by Rick Poynor, the widely respected British design writer, appeared on the cover of Eye, the magazine he founded. “What interests me is what the prevalence of Helvetica that Stephen identified so wittily in his Melbourne research says about our collective consumer mentality,” says Poynor. “Why do designers assume this kind of dull uniformity will excite people? And does it actually excite them? It’s inexpressive, placeless and lacks imagination and warmth.” Poynor comes from the left-wing tradition within British graphic design. In 2000 he was one of 33 leading designers around the world who published a manifesto, First Things First, which protested that too many designers were working simply to promote pointless consumerism, to manufacture demand for detergents, diamonds, dog biscuits – “things that are inessential at best”. Banham also locates himself on the left and his Helvetica campaign is a similar protest. But he says it is also driven by a concern that too much contemporary design is conformist, ephemeral, produced without care for the craft. He likens it to the worst modern architecture, city buildings constructed without a human touch, a cold uniform of concrete, glass and steel. Lars Muller calls Helvetica “the perfume of the city”. Precisely, Banham might reply: the modern city, alas, has no perfume. What, then, is design with a human dimension? On Banham’s wall is a screen print of a butcher’s sign. The words, ‘Chicken fillets, $5.99 a kilo’, are painted in red brushstrokes, and there is something very butcher-like about it: you can almost see the sawdust, smell the chilled meat. Similarly, says Banham, the old Nylex and Slade Knitwear signs in Richmond ”speak to people’s memories, their emotions”. This love of the old has led to a frequent criticism that Banham is merely captive to nostalgia. But he insists that is not so. He says there are many fine modern fonts – Frutiger, for example. What he wants to see is greater diversity of typefaces, old and new. That, he believes, would mark a more diverse, healthier world.

How strong is Banham’s argument? Is he onto something, or has he got rocks in his upper case? He is not alone in feeling strongly about Helvetica. Designers have fought over the font for years. To German designer Tobias Keller, seeing Helvetica “is like running into an old girlfriend and being surprised at how attractive and sophisticated she is.” But to the Austrian, Clemens Schedler, “Helvetica is sex without love. Its lack of volition is pure denial. You can do what you want with it, it doesn’t resist or agree.” It’s an argument circling the same questions: why has such an anonymous typeface become so successful? What does that say about our times? To find answers, let’s back up a little – back a couple of thousand years. Prior convictions Typographers call their profession the invisible art. As Alex Stitt, a Melbourne designer of 40-years standing, puts it, “Everybody sees typefaces every day, yet nobody thinks about them”. However, he says, ”the more you work with them, the more you see the fine detail that has gone into their making… I can tell you that the capital A in Times Roman ends in a point, whereas the top of the capital A in Plantin is cut off, and in Garamond it’s rounded. I’m a Plantin man myself,” he adds. Melbourne designer Dianna Wells is not a Gill Sans woman. She no longer uses the font because ”I don’t like the capital M. It’s just a very strange shape. “Yet Ian Campbell is ready to fight for Gill Sans. The director of Fontshop, Australia’s largest font distributor, was sitting in a South Melbourne cafe when he noticed a butcher’s sign across the road. “They had used a bad cut of Gill Sans and the tail on the R annoyed me, it was bloody awful,” he says. So Campbell got up, walked across the road and told them. He laughs: “They told me to get stuffed.” “Believe me,” says Banham.”I get letters from people who are so mad about type they make me look moderate. Yes, if this is madness, it’s madness with a historical pedigree. When the 18th century printer William Caslon designed his typeface, people wrote furious pamphlets claiming that reading Caslon would send you blind. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, insisted that his books be printed only in Caslon. Hitler banned Germany’s 400-year old blackletter fonts because he believed, wrongly, that their origins were Jewish. ”Typefaces…what history, what heritage!” Stitt exclaims. When he uses Plantin he is working hand in hand with a 16th century Frenchman. Bodoni, the typeface Vogue uses on its mashead to convey timeless elegance, was designed by an 18th century Italian, Giambattista Bodoni. Think Different the slogan Apple uses to show how cutting edge its computers are, is printed in the font of a 15th century Frenchman, Claude Garamond. In fact, typography’s thread runs right back to the Romans. Utopia is a serif face – it has strokes on the tops and bottoms of letters. It was Roman stonemasons who discovered that serifs gave letters chiselled onto columns a distinct edge, and stopped them from acquiring a dark, illegible patch at their ends. After Gutenberg invented his press in 1455, printers also found that serifs made reading easier, as the strokes led the eye from one letter to the next. For the next four centuries and more the serif was king. The first, 19th century, san serif faces were called ‘gothic’ and ‘grotesque’ to underline their scrawny weirdness. In those days type was still largely confined to books and newspapers. But a new world was about to be born, in which type would climb out of the horizontal page onto vertical surfaces and into the air. Blown up, serif faces tend to look clunky. But sans serifs look better big. They’re the typefaces of billboards, posters, the street. As signs arose in the early 20th century – to regulate an ever more complex society and to sell an array of new consumer goods – the sans serif rose with them. It was the age of mass production and of a new ideology, modernism. Tear down the remnants of feudal power and inequality, the modernists said. Technology and cheaper materials will build a world of better goods and lives. These ideals also transformed typography. Just as the architect Le Corbusier proposed pulling down much of Paris, the German typographer Paul Renner wanted to ‘undress’ the letters, to strip them of all nationalist, decorative and sentimental allusions. In 1928 Renner designed the severe, geometric typeface, Futura – a homage to the machine age. Helvetica is a child of Futura, part of the next generation of sans serif faces. But whereas Futura was born of a left-wing idea, Helvetica rode to power on the back of the 20th century’s biggest revolution: the rise of global capitalism. As European, Japanese and American companies spread overseas in the 60s and 70s, they needed to speak across cultures and languages. Being global meant being neutral, and Helvetica was perfect. Futura was designed to communicate and connect with the masses, and so was Helvetica, except that now the masses were consumers. In the 1990s came another wave of globalisation and, again, Helvetica thrived.This was modernism harnessed to corporate power.

One way to mark the change wrought by mass production is this. Stand in a city street, your workplace or your kitchen, and count all the signs and brands you see. They’re mostly banal, our eyes glide over them, yet the world of writing we live in is new. A time traveller from 100 years ago would be staggered at the messages plastered over nearly every surface. A train is no longer just a train, it’s a Connex. Soap is Velvet, a parking lot is King’s Parking, a baker, Baker’s Delight. Things can no longer simply be, they must also sell themselves. And so there are now 70,000 typefaces sold in Australia, each trying to display a unique personality, in a marketplace where every other product is trying to do the same. But, according to one of Australia’s leading graphic designers, the issue is not just capitalism but the need for a highly complex society to convey clear messages. “We are all members of the global village and we need information presented in a familiar, accessible way,” says Garry Emery. Emery, 63, has worked with type for 49 years, since leaving school at 14 to work in an engraving house. He is known for his complex signage systems at places such as Melbourne airport, exhibition centre and museum, and the Sydney Opera House. And yes, he has used Helvetica. Even so, he leans across the table and says with a smile: “I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about Helvetica, to be honest. It’s a typeface, not a religious movement.” Emery doesn’t know much about Banham but he thinks campaigning against Helvetica is pointless. Yes, “Helvetica is much maligned by many contemporary designers” but Emery says it’s easy to see why so many designers have been attracted to the font. “It’s functional, it’s clear…they think it has value.” As for Helvetica being a foot soldier of globalisation, Emery says that since Gutenberg “typefaces have never belonged to a particular people or region”. Bodoni, for example, bears no imprint of 18th century Italy, because “text and meaning have always crossed borders”. Helvetica’s great quality, Emery believes, was to capture the spirit of modernism and the machine age. He says that much in our cities, buildings, furniture and typefaces still expresses that spirit of rational design, clarity, simplicity, the primacy of function over form. However, the machine age is passing and Helvetica’s time with it, says Emery. At airports, on large public screens and even on mobile phones, “information is becoming digital, it changes all the time”. Yet digital typefaces are still made of a dot matrix, which is unsophisticated and hard to read. “We need a new typeface for the digital age,” he says. “When it comes, we will see it everywhere, just as we have with Helvetica. It will be the right typeface for the time.” Yet Emery, a man inspired by modernism, can’t resist a last defence of the classic modernist face. In an exchange of emails over this article he concludes, “You have led me to think of Helvetica as a tragic old man, once the master of the typographic universe, but now in his declining years left to be defamed, simply because he is no longer of this time.”

The Verdict

What might a jury find on Banham’s charges? To the lesser charge, of overuse driven by fashion: guilty. Even many Helvetica lovers concede it’s true. Sentence: Helvetica to be banned from all lifestyle usage for two years. But what of the graver charge, of helping to produce a more uniform, cold world? This is harder to prove. Banham’s argument relies on people with no conscious awareness of Helvetica being subliminally deadened by constant encounters with the typeface.

But that case is much easier to make for buildings than for fonts. When I started trailing Helvetica and Banham around the city, it took me months before I could recognise the typeface. Even then, without a small a or capital R, I was not entirely confident. Then, one day, I got it: Helvetica was everywhere! On one two-stop tram trip down St Kilda Road past the Arts Centre I saw it about 10 times. But it also struck me that this was a lonely insight. Who else, apart from a few designers, would see the world this way? A jury of ordinary men and women might be fascinated by Banham’s account of modern life, find his case provocative, even plausible, but not proved. In the end, surely, the consumer society is the culprit. Helvetica may be just the patsy.

True to type

“Did you know,” asks Banham, holding a beer, “that in Holland they call people who are obsessed with type ant-fuckers?” As it happens, I didn’t. But until I got onto Banham’s trail I didn’t know a lot of things – about typefaces, type history, type love. Now I’ve finally grasped his point: type is character as well as meaning, not just the messenger but the message. With the eagerness of the convert, I want to decode every sign I see. “What about this Cascade label?” I ask. Banham smiles again.” Well, I guess it’s about tradition…” But he stops. He seems a little tired of the subject. I heard through a mutual acquaintance that he’s been telling people he has to get off this Helvetica case and move on. Now he tells a story against himself. Late one night he was waiting for a friend outside a bar in Prahran when he became entranced by a sign on the door. What beautiful letters! What spacing! He doesn’t know how long he stood there before he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Stephen,” said his friend. “The sign says it’s closed.” We leave and I walk back along Swanston Street to my car. National Bank, Don’t Walk, Cheeky Dog Caf, Body Shop, Keep Left, Off Ya Tree – words are everywhere, all parading, fighting with each other, trying to talk to me. Tonight I see things differently. Tonight I’m down with the ants. Because, wherever you stand on Helvetica, on his bigger point Banham is right. Even the smallest objects carry the meaning and weight of the world. The glass I just drank from: how was it made, and by whom? How has history shaped it? What balance of materials and ideas, use and beauty? “In the surface of things,” wrote American novelist Saul Bellow, “you see the heart of things”.

I heard from Banham again the other day. He’s just mailed an anti-Helvetica t-shirt to a Canadian comrade who is about to speak at a type conference. But he has a stack of new projects, too. He’s working on a book about stories based around letters: Paul Auster’s novel New York Trilogy, the failed actress Peg Entwhistle who threw herself off the Hollywood sign, Arthur Stace walking around Sydney writing Eternity into the pavement. Lately, too, he’s been touring video stores and has noticed that Trajan Roman, a contemporary typeface based on the letters on columns built by Trajan nearly 2000 years ago, is enjoying a new vogue in film titles: the latest Star Wars, High Crimes, Minority Report, and so on. “I’ve written an article about it,” he says. “Have a look at my website”. I do, and find a piece posted beneath the headline: The Trajan Roman Debate. “But is it really a debate?” I ask. Banham laughs. “I guess not. But I’d like to start one.”