|It's elegant, it's cold, it's a typeface
trying to take over the world. Only one man can stop it. By
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
As he went he noted in a sketchbook
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 chilling 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 all begins in 1957, in the small Swiss
of Munchenstein ?
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 has 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.
Helvetica became the face of Lufthansa, Toyota, Sanyo and
Saab, Pan Am, Comme Des Garcons and Evian, the New York and
The US tax department used it, so did
the Italian Communist Party. The Beatles - "the Helvetica
of pop", as one design firm called them - printed their 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 internet. 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. As Microsoft's default
typeface, Arial 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, haute couture, Saba, Mirvac,
BMW - the face of fashion is Helvetica, especially the anorexic
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.
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 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 an idiosyncratic 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 before. "Its beauty,
its simplicity, its meaning," he says. "Its history. Its human
connection. The big picture and the small together."
His hunt for the big and the small takes
him all over the city. He finds striking signs - graffiti
in North Melbourne, type from an old biscuit factory in Port
Melbourne - and puts them on his website (www.the-letterbox.com.au),
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 streamlined typeface is Helvetica.
Banham picks up more brochures,
for Ausdance, Musica Viva, the Melbourne Film Festival, 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 smart. And the typeface? Helvetica.
The organisations behind the ads are
diverse: commercial, 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 has swamped 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 design, a Mercedes Benz, the sesame
seed bun in the burger." He finds the idea that the face is
infected by a corporate sensibility absurd.
And when Banham mailed 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 almost invisible".
After that, how could Banham resist? But Muller would
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
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 Poynor 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
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. 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
Banham's love of the old has led
to a frequent criticism that he 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 the only one with strong feelings
about Helvetica. Designers have argued 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 is 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 - a couple of thousand years.
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."
So why do a few people care so much
about type? ``Well, the more you work with them, the more
you see the fine detail that has gone into their making,"
Stitt says. ``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." He adds: ``I'm
a Plantin man myself."
Melbourne designer Dianna Wells, however,
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".
But don't say a word against Gill Sans
in front of Ian Campbell. 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
``Believe me," says Banham. ``I get letters from
people who are so mad about type they make me look moderate."
If this is madness, though, 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 masthead 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, the font you're reading now, 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, sans 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.
Sans serifs, on the other hand, 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
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
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 - in a marketplace where every
other product is trying to do the same. Among a multitude
of consumers, none of whom can be offended, the best way to stand
out is to fit in. And that helps to explain - Helvetica's critics
say - why one typeface dominates when there are now 70,000
available for sale.
But, 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 sometimes uses 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 maligned
by many contemporary designers", but Emery says it's easy to
see why so many designers have been attracted to the font.
Airports, for example, often used Helvetica because ``it's
functional and clear . . . people 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.
Yet 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". But 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 hymn to 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
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 is 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, just as
faceless modern architecture might dull the soul.
But that case is much easier to make
for buildings than for fonts. When I trailed Helvetica and
Banham around the city, it took
me months before I could even recognise the font. 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?
Second, I also saw lots of other typefaces
around the city, many just as straight and functional as Helvetica.
If fonts are partly about fashion, presumably Helvetica's
star will fall in time, a new face will rise and the arguments
will resume. A jury might be intrigued by Banham's account of modern life,
find his case provocative, even plausible, but ultimately not
proved. The bigger problem, the Don who needs to be indicted,
is consumerism. In the end, Helvetica is 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-f---ers?"
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 Cafe,
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
Because, wherever you stand on Helvetica,
on the bigger issue Banham, surely, 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?
What historical forces 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 bunch
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
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 all the rage 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."
Some information and quotes taken from
Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface.