The Post-Helvetica Church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 26, 2007

Recently, I watched a fascinating little documentary called Helvetica, which explores the ubiquitous nature of the font of the same name. It has been 50 years since the font made its debut. Since then, it has become the standard for brand logos, government documents, street signs, and word processing (Windows uses Arial–a cheap rip-off of Helvetica).

Helvetica typifies modern sensibilities. It is clean, efficient, easy to read, and utterly neutral. The font is considered by many to be the perfect expression of neutralism. In the documentary, graphic designer Wim Crouwel reflects, “It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.” It is a disembodied, gnostic font. It is universal. And it woos us to conformity.

In the 80s, postmodernism began to challenge the reign of Helvetica. In a new era of subjectivity, typographers began to rebel against the status quo as they designed expressive fonts that reinforced the meaning of their signified content. This troubled some of the typographic establishment, who saw this group of young typographers as “completely confused by that disease that was called postmodernism…[they] were just going around like chickens without their heads by using all kinds of typefaces…they didn’t know what they were caring for, they only knew what they were against…and what they were against was Helvetica.”One of those “headless chickens” was David Carson. Carson saw the hegemony of Helvetica as artistically stifling. In the documentary, he exhorts: “Don’t confuse legibility with communication…just because something is legible, doesn’t mean it communicates. And more importantly, it doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing.”Does this debate sound familiar? Maybe the emerging church is simply trying to design a new font to tell the story of God? Though it probably goes deeper than that. But at the very least, we are trying to embrace the notion that form cannot be divorced from function, nor medium from message. We are trying to redesign the church–and indeed Christianity itself. Not so that we can remake Jesus Christ in our own image. But so that we can set the Gospel free from status quo. We inherited the Church of Helvetica, and wonder if it sufficiently communicates the message.

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4 Responses to “The Post-Helvetica Church”

  1. Makeesha Fisher on November 26th, 2007 2:29 pm

    As a graphic artist, I LOVE this … very cool metaphor

  2. Jeff Gill on November 26th, 2007 2:40 pm

    Some thoughts relating to your post:

    1. While there is no denying that David Carson gave the design world a much-needed shake-up, he is pretty irrelevant now. As far as I know, the biggest waves he’s created in the last 10 years have been as a result of him not showing up at events that he was supposed to speak at. How far do you want to take the comparison?

    2. Modernism never tried to divorce form and function — quite the opposite. In modernism form is the servant of function. There is a huge difference between Modern design and modern-style design. One is a philosophy; the other is a surface dressing.

    3. Helvetica is a wonderful font. Just don’t use it for everything.

  3. Matt Wiebe on November 26th, 2007 2:47 pm

    Just so long as the EC isn’t in Papyrus or Comic Sans, it’s all right with me. ;)
    But yes, there are some interesting parallels. The myth of Enlightenment neutrality really shines through in the video there. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone call a font gnostic though!

  4. forrest on November 26th, 2007 3:02 pm

    I’m not kidding about this; I’m seriously thinking of writing a post about it.

    I was reading a history of early Christianity awhile ago, which suggested that its spread through the Empire was not primarily a matter of Christian doctrines–The author cited studies suggesting that groups succeeded in mass-conversion campaigns mainly through social factors, people accepting unfamiliar doctrines mainly because they’d first become attached to the group. Roman cities were packed with ethnic groups from the countryside, living with their countrymen but cut loose from the village structures that had formerly given shape to their lives, so disconnected that many of them joined groups that offered little more than occasional ceremonial dinners and the promise that members would be given funerals, as needed.

    So. What are churches “for”?

    Different purposes for different members? Different mixes of several reasons, even for any one member?

    Does God have only one purpose in mind that a church is supposed to fulfill? One primary purpose? (More specific than simply ‘being good for people’?)

    Are God’s purposes for having people come to church the same purposes that members typically have in mind?

    In our country, in our times, I’d say that people are generally 1) severely socially dislocated and 2) spritually disconnected. There are mass right-wing churches that exploit those conditions… but is there a better way to use them, to give these needs a true satisfaction?

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