The first visual assignment for my class MAS.110 (Fundamentals of Computational Media Design, the freshman-year Media Lab class which “covers the history of 20th century art and design from the perspective of the technologist”) was deliberately very, very open-ended. We had to
Use type/letters to convey some concept or message such that the arrangement of the letterforms visually represents/interprets/reinforces the message.
Last week in class, we watched the movie Helvetica (yes, it’s an entire movie about the font.) In the movie, there are two camps of type designers: those who think that type should be unobtrusive, and those who think type should somehow enhance the text it’s being used for. Designers in the first group like Helvetica because it’s so ubiquitous that no one notices it anymore — it’s essentially a visual default. Designers in the second group dislike how overused Helvetica is, both because there are so many other possible fonts and because Helvetica’s a perfectly good font, but it no longer stands out as a deliberate choice.
One phrase from the movie really stuck with me. A typographer from the first group said that, rather than the font somehow coordinating with the words it’s used for, “type should disappear.” (He, of course, loved Helvetica.)
Since I had two days to create something for the assignment and two other big deadlines looming, I decided to work with what I know best. I broke out my trusty exacto knife and took the phrase “type should disappear” literally. I cut it out — in Helvetica, of course — from a spare sheet protector, with the letters tracked so that it was one solid piece.
When I brought the scrap of sheet protector to the class discussion, it took on a layer that I hadn’t intended. I’d originally planned for it to simply be a clear phrase in Helvetica, one that sort of “disappeared” by way of both the font and the material. In class, though, I realized that it had one other similarity with Helvetica: no one noticed it sitting there on my desk until I picked it up and pointed it out.
I love being surprised when things click together like that.