The Slippery Road

Isn't this an oxymoron?

I was looking through an old type specimen book today and found myself repeating, "Oh my God, what have you done?" There were awful mutilations of classics like Garamond and Bembo. They were fattened up as if being readied for a slaughter. I expected this. I wasn't shocked when I found wacky 1970s typefaces. And then I came across the terror. 

This is what happens when type is freed from the constraints of metal and allowed to take on all kinds of forms with photo-typesetting. It was bound to happen. Like most things in life, because someone can do it, they will. 

The 1960s counter-culture was a rejection of consumerism. It wasn't cool to buy stuff. So design evolved. Household appliances, cars, and polyester clothing now existed in "earth" colors: avocado, mustard, brown, ochre, and burnt orange. This way an anti-consumerist could purchase a giant Buick and feel ok. And to make sure that the consumer knew he or she was getting value, things got bigger. Ties became as wide as scarves, jeans had giant bell bottoms, and big hair was the style du jour. 

I'm assuming this is the reason for some of the type mutilation. If I could have a bold font, could it be bolder? Why shouldn't Helvetica have swashes? Aztec temples as letterforms? Why not? And could someone add even more curly items on a typeface? Although I will admit I'm warming to some of these, especially the numerals and ampersands. But I imagine that's the slippery road to hell.


Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Helvetica is Jan

Speaking after Stefan Sagmeister at a conference is a bad idea. I've done this many times. It's not that Stefan is nothing less than a true gentleman and good friend, it's that when he finishes, I can look out at the audience from the side of the stage and see people streaming out en masse. "Well that's what I came for, time to go," they must be saying. I'm not crazy about doing this, as I tend to come off as, "and now for the easy listening break."

Years ago, I spoke at a conference following someone, not as generous as Stefan, who was one of the hip and cool designers at that time. She talked about the critical theory and deconstruction of meaning regarding a logo she designed that looked exactly like Helvetica, but the crossbar of the "A" was removed. People seemed enthralled. I just thought, "and..."

Now, I've become that person, waxing on about the importance of the differences between Haas Grotesk and Helvetica. Sorry. I know everyone has a major hard-on for Helvetica, but I can't look at it as anything but the less attractive sister of Haas Grotesk, like Jan and Marsha. Originally, Helvetica was Haas Grotesk, but over time changes were made for expediency. Christian Schwartz redrew Haas Grotesk in 2004, based on Max Miedinger's 1957 version.

Compared to standard issue system Helvetica, it's elegant, crisp, warm, and legible. It doesn't suffer from the "generic" look of Helvetica. I've been using it probably more than I should. I promise, however, to not talk endlessly about the lower case "r" at my next lecture. Maybe just a little.

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Haas Grotesk (L) Helvetica (R)
Helvetica in Switzerland
Helvetica in Switzerland

Let's Take an Old Fashioned Walk

Originally, I planned to do this post about modernism done well, and modernism done badly. For example, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe is done well. A black box office building on Ventura Boulevard is not so good. The JC Penney annual report for 1970 is a great example of beautiful and precise modernism. George Tscherny’s design is crisp and clean. The Helvetica is elegant. This is what a Swiss grid and Helvetica can be in the hands of a master. This is, obviously, the intent for the current JC Penney Helvetica style.

But, while doing research for this post, I came across the website, www.wishbookweb.com. It’s a treasure trove of shopping catalogues. The 1970 JC Penney Christmas catalogue has nothing to do with the annual report beside the date. It’s a remarkable time capsule. The clothes are, of course, funny. It’s the odd subtext of the pages that make it such a pleasure. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did see some plaid shirts that I wanted to buy. But you cannot call 1970. Nobody answers, and there were no answering machines.

 

And now, from high modernism to nifty hats and big pockets on the front of pants.

I don't think anyone looks good in His n' Hers styles. Couples should not match unless they are in a groovy band like Kids of the Kingdom.

This is further proof that matching outfits are wrong. And these simply look illicit.

There is an odd prevalence of men holding women on the ground in this book. It's quite submissive and frankly disturbing. I believe the women should be allowed to stand, especially if forced to wear department store headbands. Even I know that's uncool.

Am I wrong or is this a page of "swingers"? And I don't mean the dancing to swing music people. These are the people who live down the block and invite you to a "key" party. Don't go. It will end badly.

What can be said? First, these are bathmats with holes cut for sleeves. Second, these vests scream, "beat me up! Please!" A nun would cross the street to beat up these kids.