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Now You See It

Dangerous Objects
Dec 8, 2016 · 12 min read

Helvetica, Modernism and the Status Quo of Design

by Jen Wang

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” — Howard Zinn

“Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.” —Junot Diaz

In 1991, Brenda Mitchell-Powell published an article in AIGA’s Journal titled, “Why is Design 93% White?” Since then, little has changed in the racial makeup of the design industry. While there are now more women in the profession, design remains overwhelmingly white, and decidedly not reflective of the racial demographics in the United States. The topic has been revived lately, but the discussion seems to revolve around issues of inclusion. But that inclusion is contingent on the aesthetic parameters of design itself being inclusive. What value does design, as it exists and is taught now, have to communities of color, and how does it represent them?

The lack of racial diversity in graphic design is tied to the pedagogy of design itself. At design schools, foundation courses teach a clearly Western European approach rooted in Modernism. Design history, as it is taught in those settings, renders racial whiteness invisible through an erasure of social context. By isolating creative movements and individual creators, design pedagogy supports the myth of individual exceptionalism, while the Western-centric approach implies racial essentialism. Combined with validating its design aesthetic through theory, this results in a visual language that can exclude and invalidate the perspectives of non-whites. How can a profession hope to attract people of color when the requirements are to assimilate, internalize, and perpetuate white hegemony?

Within the design community, design is projected and generally understood as being neutral and universal, able to communicate any message and embody all human experiences. In reality, of course, true neutrality is about as real as unicorns. Yet design continues to raise neutrality up as the goal of its practitioners without any real examination of what that means. This notion was highlighted in a San Francisco Creative Morning Talk by New York Times design editor Jennifer Daniel. Countering self-congratulatory rhetoric in the design community, Daniel summarized: “Design is not good unto itself. Design is, in fact, neutral . . . design is not philosophy, design is not a revolution, design is not a cause, design is neutral.” Designers, as service providers, are conceived as neutral actors in the process of creating visual and experiential solutions. Designers see their work as a process and practice separate from the outcome and message it conveys. Michael Bierut writes, “The graphic designer’s role is largely one of giving form to content. Often — perhaps even nearly always — this process is a cosmetic exercise. Only rarely does the form of a message become a signal of meaning in and of itself.” Although design contributes to the culture it perpetuates and reflects upon, it is seen as the stage for the message, not as part of the message itself.

Graphic design is no more neutral than any other product of society. More than that, as an arm of Western cultural development, it is implicitly a function of neocolonialism and all that it has engendered. When Paul Rand declared that design and social issues be kept separate, his statement implied that aesthetic judgements were akin to universal truths that form in a vacuum. Ignoring the social context that informs aesthetic choices, and the political role of art and culture, exemplifies a privilege of whiteness — a privilege that enables the white person as the voice of authority.

Having donned that mantel of authority, designers can then dictate the terms of design and the experience of design:

Even if it is true that the average man seems most comfortable with the commonplace and familiar, it is equally true that catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates the mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.

Rand’s view expands on Massimo Vignelli’s description of a designer’s social engagement as a fight against ugliness. This paternalistic perspective removes designers from the full scope of social participation and encourages the notion that aesthetics have no bearing on content, despite being experienced simultaneously. Instead of engaging with the public, designers are elevated as authoritative voices who dictate “good” design down to the ignorant masses. Not only is the “we know best” mentality condescending, it closes the door to new avenues of aesthetic growth. Especially when designers are demographically homogeneous, only one perspective then dominates the discourse on what constitutes valid design and who creates it.

The aesthetic ideology that champions neutrality and demands the separation of design and designers from social engagement is inextricably tied to Modernism. An aspect of the Modernist doctrine encouraged throwing off the spirit-stifling weight of past traditions and constructed the modern man as a self-determining individual untethered by historical consequences. Discussing Modernism in the context of architectural design, Bryan Lee says:

The issue is an ideology that finds its roots in architectural modernism, which eliminates ethnocultural and even sociocultural conditions from the variables that define quality architecture. When we eliminate these essential considerations, we lose the ability for architecture to respond to the colloquial design languages of the people it serves.

Lee’s words apply to graphic design as well. The intentional elimination of historical context forms a false separation of “sociocultural conditions” from aesthetics, creating the myth of a neutral “pure” aesthetic and the idea of a “rational” aesthetic dictated by science and technology. Modernism reached for a logic-based approach in creating a universal style. Typefaces arising from Modernism, such as Helvetica, emphasize the notion, as summed up by Lázló Moholy-Nagy: “. . . unequivocal clarity in all typographical compositions. Legibility-communication must never be impaired by an a priori esthetics.” Moholy-Nagy’s “unequivocal clarity” sets a starting point for the conception of design as a neutral agent of content. Aesthetically, this was manifested in letterforms removed of serifs, reduced to the most necessary shapes. The political implications of Modernism’s “new typography” were not lost on all its developing practitioners. Jan Tschichold, who wrote the book defining modernist typography and design, later renounced his own tenets, seeing in them parallels to fascism. Forgetting the a priori past in favor of the future created an unreflective field that, to this day, creates an arbitrary separation between design and the context in which it exists and acts.

Helvetica serves as a metaphorical shorthand for graphic design because of its deep ties to Modernism. In the Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary about Helvetica, Bierut creates an analogy around the typeface and its radical effect on redesigning a classic brand: “. . .[the new design] must have felt like you had crawled through a desert with your mouth caked with filthy dust, and then someone offers you a clear, refreshing distilled icy glass of water . . . it must have just been fantastic.” Beirut’s dramatic analogy touches on the interwoven relationship of Helvetica and graphic design, and its role in revolutionizing the profession. This relationship is directly addressed by Experimental Jetset in an interview with Rudy Vanderlans, wherein they remark, “ . . . Helvetica refers mostly to graphic design itself. And this self-referentiality is yet another reason why we use Helvetica.” In other words, Helvetica reflects the ideology of graphic design, specifically the fundamentality of Modernism.

Helvetica supports the belief of Modernism’s ability to communicate the breadth of human experiences through its “neutral” and “universal” visual language. Designers imbue it with the ability to “neutraliz[e] the typographic layer as a way to keep the concept as clear and pure as possible.” It holds sway over designers as, at the very least, a benchmark of quality. Vignelli believed Helvetica, one of three typefaces he used, could express a nuanced panoply of human emotions. Linotype, in describing the updated Helvetica Neue, refers to the typeface as “. . . the quintessential sans serif font, timeless and neutral, and can be used for all types of communication.” This perception of Helvetica both echoes and reinforces the constructs of racial whiteness through visual representation. Writes Richard Dyer, “The invisibility of whiteness as a racial position in white discourse is of a piece with its ubiquity . . . Whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” White people are privileged by this worldview which organizes non-white people in racial hierarchies over which whites preside. Visual perceptions of white people and people of color alike are constructed through this perspective’s cultural permeance. Helvetica’s permeance and invisibility embodies the white aesthetic ideal and its contradictory representations. The power in racial whiteness lies in that paradox: “White [people] must be seen as white, yet whiteness as a race resides in invisible properties.”

By projecting whiteness as the norm and as neutral, white people (above all, white, heterosexual males), are perceived as not possessing any particular qualities. Similarly, Helvetica paradoxically has an absence of distinct qualities, yet is specific enough in form and spirit to stand out from other grotesk typefaces following the same Modernist ideology. Bierut’s analogy on Helvetica, mentioned earlier in this essay, subconsciously presents the typeface as being paradoxically distinct and nothing particular while simultaneously being as fundamental and essential as water. Stefan Sagmeister describes Helvetica as a type that visually “. . . bore[s] the shit out of you.” In much the same way, white culture is sometimes paradoxically cast by white people as as non-existent, dull or square as contrasted with the authenticity, vivacity, and exoticism of non-white cultures. Helvetica was able to evince cultural permeance to a degree that supported the theory of its own supposed universality. Because Helvetica is “universal,” it solves any design problem. It solves any design problem because it is “universal.” What better way to prove the theory of an ideology than to apply its solution to any design problem?

As the distillation of Modernist design ideology, the perception of Helvetica as neutral and universally applicable is reflected broadly in how graphic design is taught, theorized and practiced. Graphic design makes visual that paradoxical nature of white representation. That paradox shapes white people as boring or lacking any particular characteristics to the point of not having a culture to point at; it also constructs whites as unique, exceptional individuals. Through the development of the “rational” grid system and of rules around visual hierarchy and composition, graphic design achieves a guise as invisible and subordinate to the message it conveys. Pedagogy insists that great graphic design exhibits a distinct individuality while also being able to communicate on a “universal” level. Its exceptionalism is distinct but invisible, intangible, inexplicable. In creating the aesthetic standards of design and typography, Modernism codified white supremacy into visual form.

The correlation between graphic design, typography and whiteness is amplified by how design often represents non-white cultures and people. Whiteness maintains racial dominance by projecting itself as unencumbered by the physical world or by the past, by characterizing itself as an intangible spirit. In contrast, the racial other, as embodied by people of color, is perpetually defined and grounded by both constraints. According to Edward Said, Western imperialist structure groups all non-Western geographies as the Orient:

. . . whose existence is not only displayed but has remained fixed in time and place for the West. So impressive have the descriptive and textual successes of Orientalism been that entire periods of the Orient’s cultural, political, and social history are considered mere responses to the West. The West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behavior.

Representing otherness is the ideological flip side of universality. Design seeking to represent people of color — aside from often resulting in offensive stereotypes — falls below the qualitative hierarchy of design practices. Otherness as signaled from a white (usually male) perspective is considered of a lower quality of design production to white audiences, manifested in clichés and tropes rather than a pure aesthetic creativity. For example, “chop suey” type commonly found on Chinese take out boxes and menus across the U.S. signals a general Asianness in the most un-nuanced way to white audiences. This style of lettering embodies the white perception of something that is “in the style of” Chinese calligraphy. This truly is visual Orientalism: white perceptions imposed onto a racial subject. This racist typographic style may as well be the diametric opponent of Helvetica and is, in Rand’s words, the “. . . equivalent of a corny illustration.”

In more sophisticated contexts, otherness is still projected through typographic means. Book covers for literary novels with female protagonists tend towards swash or serif typefaces; novels taking place in foreign countries employ as pastiche flourishes, macrame, or other cultural clichés and stereotypes — tropes for white consumption. Female and racially other persons are commonly depicted on the page, usually as a faceless generalization of gender and race. This not only reinforces the power dynamic of who is seen and who is seeing, but also reinforces the other as static, immutable, fixed. As Said notes, the duality imposed by Western European colonialist ideology on non-Western European cultures as “Oriental-African” places racial others in opposition to and in service of “European-Aryan” whiteness through “. . . a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.”

In contrast, book covers with an absence of specific human figures or “masculine” type design are often correlated with the qualities of “good” design. Masculine whiteness is not commonly depicted in a human form but in its absence, a reflection of its mutable non-specificity and supposedly all-encompassing nature. Examples of this may be seen in winning covers of the annual 50 Books/50 Covers competition where thirty-nine of the fifty books contain no human figures in part or whole. Of the eleven covers that do, six depict identifiably feminine figures or suggestions of femininity (via a gendered haircut), three depict hands, one contains two male profiles in silhouette (with maleness also being suggested in hair styles), one shows a man and a woman as abstracted illustration; one cover shows a space suit. This aesthetic is not dependent on the gender of designers, authors or characters in the literary work produced. Its application across lines of social hierarchy reinforces the supremacy of this design aesthetic.

If graphic design reflects the society we live in, it also plays a role in reflecting, perpetuating, and maintaining the social and cultural structures in which we operate. In aligning aesthetic values with the construction of whiteness, graphic design has built its foundations on paradigms synonymous with and invested in perpetuating white supremacy. In an increasingly connected world and in a country where people of color are the fastest-growing segment of the population, it behooves designers to be able to articulate and reflect perspectives and ideas that, while not necessarily Western European, are no less part of the American — and global — experience. We need to challenge the foundation of design practice, to contextualize the history and social role of design as a buttress to imperialism, and to create space in design education for broader explorations of design aesthetic. To do so, design practitioners and educators should look to inclusiveness as broader than assimilating people of color. Without people of color to bring different perspectives and to challenge the aesthetic hierarchy built into design pedagogy, design as a practice languishes as it loses its ability to communicate with relevance to the society it serves.


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