Tuned In

Font of Youth: How is Obama Like Target?

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This weekend I watched the DVD of last year’s documentary Helvetica, which is, yes, about the typeface, and which is—really, I’m serious—absolutely fascinating. The movie directly relates to Mrs. Tuned In’s job, which involves graphic design, but if you ever have the chance to watch it, it has lessons for Tuned Inland too: namely, that all images—even, or especially, plain type that surrounds you in the background—carries messages.

If you can bear the idea that the fonts you select in Microsoft Word can be political—and even relate to the current Presidential campaign—read on:

The movie Helvetica traces the now-ubiquitous sans-serif font to its mid-20th-century Swiss origins. (Serifs, for non-printheads out there are the little feet and other doohickeys at the ends of letters—like on the TIME logo above.) Sans-serif fonts had been around for a while, but the popularization of Helvetica changed typography. Before, the ads and corporate letterheads emphasized flowing, florid script, and lots of different, busy typefaces. Helvetica was about cleanliness, order, rationality, ease of reading. (Serif letter, really, are about creating the illusion of handwriting, since serifs are a holdover from the stray marks created when a pen hits and leaves a page.)

Ironically, the typeface appealed both to a kind of internationalist, idealistic mindset, like Esperanto or the metric system (Helvetica comes from “Helvetia,” the Latin for Switzerland, a famously neutral country, and the typeface was free of particular nationalistic or cultural associations) and to the corporate, capitalistic mindset (companies that wanted to rebrand themselves as “modern” in the 1960s went nuts for it). One graphic designer compares the font to a blast of water, clearing off the caked-on dust and history of companies’ Industrial-Age histories. Businesses adopted it left and right. It was such a commercial hit, in fact, that the reaction against it among designers in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s had a political cast. (One designer interviewed for the film says she could never use it because she associated it with the big corporations that supported the Vietnam War.)

Anyway, this intersects Tuned In in a couple of ways. For one, the era of the rise of Helvetica—the heyday of midcentury modern design—is the era of Mad Men. One thing that you can see in the old-fashioned ads of old-fashioned Sterling Cooper is the soon-to-be-eclipsed business of line drawings, testimonials and lots of advertising copy. In last night’s Mad Men, Don Draper resisted throwing over a client to go after American Airlines, which was looking to change its image after a plane crash. Guess what company was one of the famous examples of an old brand changing its logo to Helvetica in the 1960s? (Scroll down.)

Second, the documentary interviews Tobias Frere-Jones, who early in this decade designed Gotham, the Helvetica-like font that’s used ubiquitously in the impeccably designed Obama campaign graphics. Like Aeron chairs or Eames furniture, Helvetica and its ilk have enjoyed a revival in the 21st century, and—like so much in campaigns—the use of the font sends multiple messages. First, given how small-c conservative most campaign design is (something like this could have been a campaign design for any candidate in the last four decades), the font and the all-around look communicates modernity—it reinforces the “change” branding. If you think of a Presidential candidate as a brand—and their campaigns do—it’s young… but not too young. It also communicates a level of familiarity and safety, because you’ve seen if pretty much everywhere in commercial culture. (John McCain’s website, befitting a conservative and old-school candidate, has a more traditional design and mix of serif and sans-serif fonts.)

This may still seem like a bunch of hoo-hah, but it’s not just TV critics with nothing better to do who think this way. The corporate executives who spend billions to sell things—and the contractors that they hire—think about exactly this sort of environmental message all the time. It really is not just what you say, but how you say it.

For the few of you who are interested in hearing even more about graphic design and politics, here’s a related video about the Obama campaign’s design, specifically its “sunrise” logo: