The controversy of Helvetica’s infamy within the design community that is described in the documentary film, “Helvetica,” is closely linked with the uneasy relationship between design and commercialism. Helvetica’s functionalist form, which was propagated by the Swiss school of design, is based on an objectivity that is ultimately devoid of content. This aligns perfectly with corporate culture’s ideals of formal purity, which is resistant to notions of individual voice, choosing instead for its priorities accessibility, reproduction and recognition over authenticity in the name of maximizing profits.
Somewhat paradoxically, however, successful corporations design brands that also serve to support mainstream cultures’ demand of social status indicators for the sake of reputation and…. self-expression, which is largely oriented with popular fashion and trends. This relationship between big business and mainstream culture is one that does not sit very well with many creatively-motivated designers because of its tendency to reduce cultural expressions into what can reasonably be called stereotypes through a process referred to as popular degradation. The result is products that are expressed within the confines of what already exists and which has “incubated” and burgeoned within subculture and fringe groups, as well as externally within other distinct cultures.
The take away is not that the aesthetic that Helvetica represents is illegitimate in some fundamental way as some designers vehemently proclaim in the documentary. In fact, what they refuse to acknowledge is that Helvetica perfectly symbolizes western societies puritan work ethic and high esteem for cleanliness, which actually reinforces its capacity to remain timeless. This aesthetic also serves, in the case of Apple’s iPhone for instance, as a strategy that shifts the physical product into the background and allows the interface to become the medium, so it will continue to serve as a vital function in design for the foreseeable future.
However, we have not reached the end of history, culture continues to evolve and creative expression is still one of humanities most time honored endeavors but, as Gil Scott-Heron sang, “the revolution will not be televised.” Instead, mainstream culture will only feel the reverberations of its aftermath, and then only after it has gone through the machine of popular degradation.
Concept & Context
So where do you find the cutting edge of creativity and cultural expression? Apart from the raw intermingling between diverse groups and concepts that occurs within the cultural melting pot, historical context is also imperative as Paul Rand stated, “he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be.” These conditions are necessary for innovation for two reasons: blind imitation is a willful ignorance that can only result in a formulaic pseudoism – what Otto and Smith describe as “the contraction of the time horizon to the immediate future and a shallow past” – but, despite the genius that we bestow on revolutionary thinkers, new paradigms do not happen in a vacuum either, they are found opportunities of new associations and unique ideas within and between ideas that already exist.