This is my brain on fonts.

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

helvetica, everywhere

It was particularly wonderful for James, Rebecca, and Brigid to get me the DVD of Helvetica for my birthday. It sat here unwatched, however, “awaiting just the right moment,” until last night, when Sammy and I had a razor-sharp viewing on our fine HDTV screen…even the standard-def DVD looked outstanding.

It was so worth the wait.

There it was, the story of a font as old as I am, the font that seemed so stunningly new and clean to me on the side of NYC garbage trucks and along the multicolored routes angling through Massimo Vignelli’s NYC subway map. The font that probably was my first Letraset purchase, and therefore used in my painstakingly (and crushingly) kerned logo for my high school newspaper-turned-magazine. The font that became the ubiquitous signature of 1970s corporate America. The font that brightened up the sooty Greyhound buses that took me across the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Ohio to New York. The font I brought excitedly to the corporate identity of SuperStationWTBS. And now, the font that greets me in bright Target red when I drive down to Caroline Street to buy toilet paper.

And here were the international masters of modern design and typography discussing their own particular loves and hates of the font that somehow changed everything…and nothing. Kelley’s type teacher Matthew Carter. Gotham god Tobias Frere-Jones. Spiekermann. Scher. Hoefler. Brody. Carson, so many more.

In their self-proclaimed type nerdiness I recognized the pulls I’ve felt since I was first aware there were things called typefaces. I could relate to all their persnicketiness and flashes of ego, their romance with the magic of type on the page and their contempt for all things mediocre (Erik Spiekermann‘s evisceration of Microsoft on the DVD extras is so damn entertaining)…and I especially connected with the moments where they paused, looked aside, and seemed to grasp for greater meaning in something that is ultimately an alphanumeric collection of light and dark shapes…and failed, one after the other, quite to put it into words.

Well, exactly.