Helvetica and Software

I saw the documentary Helvetica Sunday night at AFI SILVERDOCS 2007. You have to see it. (Screenings are sparse and they have been selling out, so you might have to wait until October when the DVD comes out.)

Helvetica and its director

My friend Matt pointed out the fact that there were three groups of designers interviewed in the film: those of the modern design camp who saw the typeface’s birth in 1957 and love it to this day; those of the grunge design camp who didn’t like structure in the late 60s and 70s and hate it for its lack of emotion; and cutting-edge designers who love it and are bringing the design community back to it.

This contrast between camps becomes clear in the middle of the film when the interviewer asks designers why they like or dislike the typeface. Eric Spiekermann (of the modern design camp) summarizes the beauty of it when he states that Helvetica is a perfect balance between foreground and background–it does not distract the reader from the content of the message that is being communicated. Soon afterwards, David Carson (of the grunge design camp) explains that he, and other grunge designers by extension, believes that graphic design should be the expression of the artist’s feelings as he reads the content. Carson went on to illustrate through a personal experience. At one point in his career, he published an entire article in ITC Zapf Dingbats because he thought the article was dry and boring, rendering it unreadable.

Do you see what’s happening here? Grunge designers are forcing their personal impressions upon their audiences. I have no problem with this technique in art–art is often supposed to express an artist’s subjectivity and invoke a similar reaction in the audience; however, when presenting text, especially text written by another, designer expressiveness distracts. Readers are drawn to the way a chunk of text looks rather than how it reads. They are impressed but not convinced.

As I was watching this dichotomy unfold, I realized that this same mistake happens in software design. Developers can create subjectively “cool” functionality or user interface components and then force them on their users–not realizing that they are distracting users from the real reason they are using the software in the first place: to manage data. Unless users are trying to be wowed (i.e. videogames), developer expression is going to sidetrack or confuse users at best. This is why there are detailed user interface standards, guidelines, and best practices, and this is why software engineers and user interface designers should follow them.

Don’t try to be an artist unless you’re creating art.

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3 thoughts on “Helvetica and Software

  1. Ian Lotinsky Post author

    That’s a great idea, except that Windows doesn’t come with Helvetica, so most people would see it in Arial instead. Arial is a well-known rip-off created to skirt past Helvetica’s licensing fees.

    Microsoft is in business to make money, I guess.

    Reply
  2. Rhea

    Cool! you got to go to Helvetica!

    I have to admit, I am somewhat bothered when people who want to build websites say “we want to be ‘Web 2.0′” when they really mean “flashy and minimally functional.”

    :)

    Reply

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