Happy? Birthday Helvetica

Yes, fonts have birthdays. Helvetica, the font of choice for the modern(ist) age is now 50 years old. Yes, the font for neo-fascists enjoys its golden days in an appropriate age. It's so sleek, so efficient, so easy to read, so... everywhere. It even has its own film.

We composition(ists) don't often talk much about typeface, but we should. I know, I know, computer and writing folks have been talking about fonts for a while now and *everybody* has the disclaimer on their syllabus to use one of the "appropriate" fonts like Times New Roman but NOT like Wiesbaden Swing Dingbats. But we really haven't theorized fonts, have we? Graphics are so much more cool.

But sometimes we need that Buffy the Vampire Font to make our point, to persuade our audience that this is really a cool thing we're doing. Of course, it can backfire, too. Fonts are to content like dress is to a speaker's ethos, n'est-ce pas?

Given Fleckenstein's argument that literacy involves image and word, what better place to start than looking at how font use signals a particular relation to the subject, composing or composed? What about Wysocki's "I Can See Clearly Now: The Visible Form of Academic Texts and the Invisible Form of the Subject." It's been eleven years since she made that point, so maybe we should revive it. It seems to connect typeface to larger social flows of power and desire, so maybe we can get a critical angle on what we do when we provide appropriate versus inappropriate fonts or when we say explore fonts in this part of the course, but not in this other part.

Anyway, happy birthday fonts everywhere. No exceptions.


Anonymous said...

How awesome is it that someone, somewhere, is recogizing a font's birthday? In any event, you raise a really interesting point here, one that would seems especially relevant to composition studies, at least so long as it's concerned with writing's materiality (which I'm not convinced is the case most of the time). If we begin to (re)see writing as an inscription technology, whose mode of inscribing bears significantly and rhetorically on the "meaning" constituted therein, then fonts are an obvious place to turn, if for no other reason than (and as you point out) most of us have some disclaimer regarding typeface in our syllabi.

Unknown said...

Wow. That just blew my mind. Your description of Helvetica as 'neo-fascist' is spot on. The wikipedia entry for the font quotes an expert:
When people choose Helvetica they want to fit in and look normal. They use Helvetica because they want to be a member of the efficiency club. They want to be a member of modernism. They want to be a member of no personality. It also says bland, unadventurous, unambitious.
So I guess that would make Helvetica the font of choice for futurists?

But if you want my two cents, Palantino wins hands down.

Anyways, how's life?

Unknown said...

Scot, I think it goes beyond typeface, too. Just think about the ways we make rhetorical moves with variations of our scripts, too. Why is it [any] different from the way(s) we sign/ify with Other inscriptions?

k8 said...

I've actually given students articles to read about typography. They've often told me these are some of their favorite readings for the semester. It is an interesting area, one that is discussed in studies of print culture(s). I'd be interested in seeing more comp-rhet type work done in this area, too.

Unknown said...

Great point, K8. What do you think a comp-rhet work in this area would look like? Certainly, there are theories about inscription technologies as Scot suggested, but are there others? What do you have students read and how might these readings propose a way forward for comp-rhetors to think about the ways typography contributes to argumentation?

k8 said...

I used it as part of a visual rhetorics unit. Our course theme was Images and Texts, so it was a good fit - particularly when I taught in the FIG with an art history focus. After we read a few articles, I would bring in different types of books and other print items. Picture books work very well since they use a variety of fonts, weights, sizes, etc.

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..