The moment the New York graphic design community has long awaited is almost upon us. Tonight, Gary Huswit premieres his sold-out-for-weeks documentary film Helvetica.
I was in the audience for a sneak preview at MoMA several weeks ago, and I'll give you my early review. The film is great. (And not just because I'm in it, nasal Cleveland accent and all.) Huswit has structured the film's interviews to create a perfect short course in postwar graphic design. Luke Geissbuhler's cinematography is beautiful, and the music makes everything seem positively hip. I left the preview feeling thrilled to be a graphic designer.
Like many, I have high hopes that this will be the moment that our field finally breaks through to the general public. As I excitedly said to a friend, "Hey, this might do for typography what Wordplay did for crossword puzzles."
My friend, a non-designer who has always found my enthusiasm for things like fonts a bit alarming, was a little less sure. "Maybe it'll do for typography," he said, "what Capturing the Friedmans did for pedophilia."
Hmm. I always have been a little sheepish about my obsession with type. And my friend isn't alone in sensing that this obsession has a vaguely prurient quality. More than one interviewee in the film gets a little hot and bothered about things like counterspace and x-heights. As Erik Spiekermann puts it: "Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or you know, girls' bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It's a little worrying, I must admit."
There was a time when we designers had this obsession all to ourselves. Before the introduction of the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing in the mid-eighties, the names of fonts were something that normal people encountered rarely. (Typically, this might happen if they stayed with their Alfred A. Knopf volumes all the way to the last page where they'd encounter the often comically arcane "Note on the Type.") For the overwhelming majority of the population, the names of typefaces were as obscure as the Latin names of plants, and just as useful.
Anyone could design a poster or a t-shirt back then. What they couldn't do is typeset it. This was the technical feat that separated the professionals from the amateurs. Believe me: changing handwritten text into set type was magic, and we designers were the only ones who knew how to pull it off. For my first two-and-a-half years of design school projects, I used dry transfer lettering for headlines, and dummy copy in a few predictable sizes that we'd xerox out of books. Who could afford typesetting? A simple job would cost $35 or $40 dollars back then, tough to come by on a student budget. Typeset words had true authority, because they had real money behind them. And in the working world, the money got even more real: I remember seeing typesetting bills for annual reports that were in the high five figures.
As a young designer in his first real job in 1980, I learned that this made typography a high-stakes game. It went like this. You'd get a manuscript from a client, say 20 pages of Courier (although no one called it Courier, or even thought of it that way). You'd have to calculate how many characters were in the manuscript the old fashioned way — no Microsoft Word, no word count tools — by counting characters per line, then total number of lines, then doing the math. Next you'd have to decide out what text typeface you wanted to use, what size and what measure. Finally, you'd refer to a copyfitting table to see how long the columns would run: more math. If it seemed like this figure would fit the layout, you'd mark up the manuscript and send it to a typesetter. It would be back, set in beautiful type the following morning, galley after crisp, clean galley of it. If it fit, good for you. If it ran long, guess what? You just lost $250, stupid.
As was true for children of the Great Depression, these tiresome hardships led to deeply-ingrained habits. It was a system that rewarded deliberate planning, not creative experimentation. You found yourself repeatedly specifying certain fonts just because you knew how they would set: after a few years I could make a pretty accurate guess about how long a typewritten manuscript would run in Garamond #3 (12 on 13, flush left, ragged right on a 30 pica column measure) just by looking at it. So I set a lot of Garamond #3. And your relationship with your typesetter was one of the most important in your life. For years, Earl from Concept Type was the first person I'd call in the morning and the last one I'd call before going home at night. He'd save my ass, too, calling me at home at 2am to confirm that I actually wanted that last subhead to be bold italic instead of just bold like the others. I knew his voice like I knew my wife's. I saw him only one time, at a Christmas party, and had that same horrible moment of disbelief and disorientation that I had when I saw a picture of my favorite radio disk jockey: But Earl doesn't look like that! It was him, though.
Earl is gone now, just like every typesetter I ever knew. Instead, we live in a world where any person in any cubicle in the world can pick between Arial and Trebuchet and Chalkboard whenever they want, risk free, copyfitting tables be damned, and where a film about a typeface actually stands a chance of enjoying some small measure of popular success. As my college-age daughter says, "All my friends are really into fonts." There isn't much other currency available, after all, in the realm of MySpace and Facebook. Is it still magic when everyone knows how the trick works?
I hope Helvetica is a smash. It deserves to be. But part of me still misses the days when it was just our little secret.