Posted by: hannah jo | April 13, 2008

Thinking about type

Quite by chance, two items related to typography have filled my head this past week. I had reserved both items at the library at different times, but they arrived at about the same time.

Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students by Ellen Lupton came to my attention via Goodreads (do you have an account there yet?) because one or two of my “friends” there had read it. As the author says at the beginning of the book, “This is not a book about fonts. It’s a book about how to use them.”

Helvetica, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit, was shown in theaters last year and is now available on DVD. It takes a look at the pervasiveness of the font Helvetica, which has been around for 50 years now, and at the field of typography, in general, and its role in our lives.

When I was much younger I was a real type-head. Lori and I were fortunate enough to have two outstanding teachers in high school who were hip to type and graphic design. One was Mr. Hambly, who taught graphic design and photography. The other was Mr. Waller, our journalism teacher. Mr. Hambly procured a Compugraphic typesetter for our school from some local business (I don’t remember the specifics now, but I do remember he got a very good deal on it) and we were able to learn about typesetting by actually doing it on a sophisticated piece of equipment. Mr. Waller taught us to design and lay out our school newspaper, which we did using all of the fabulous equipment in Mr. Hambly’s room: the typesetter, the AB Dick 360 printing press, the darkroom, the process camera, you name it.

Learning about type and fonts then seemed like a natural part of being a writer and a reader. I loved it. I didn’t realize how lucky we were to be exposed to all of these tools until I got to college and majored in Visual Communication. I took typesetting and other graphic design classes there and rarely did they go beyond what I had learned in high school, although one teacher did design her own fonts by hand. So, Mr. Hamby and Mr. Waller, thank you AGAIN!

Later, as an adult, I got a job at Aldus, back when desktop publishing was a brand new idea and people used computers without hard disks to achieve that task (yes, it was a very long time ago). I had no computer skills, but they hired me because I knew about leading and kerning and ascenders and x-height and all that sexy type stuff. PageMaker was new and glorious and gave people the ability to communicate with type in new ways (with both magical and horrible results).

I worked with and for people who were also type-heads. I typeset a book of poetry and Lori attended the publication party with me. Being a part of that world was intoxicating because of the beauty of the letter forms and the precision that was now possible in using them.

I’ve been out of that world for quite some time now. Almost all of my work documents are in Times New Roman and Helvetica, just like everyone else’s. But, reading Thinking with Type and watching Helvetica have reignited my interest in type and design. I felt tremendously excited by some of the designers who were interviewed in Helvetica, especially David Carson. Oh my god. I shouted at the TV set (in a good way).

Clearly, Lori and I are still just figuring out this blog stuff and I’m proud when we can simply find a way to insert an image! So, designing with text and type and images is still a ways off. At some point, though, I’d love to do some design work again and see what happens.

One of my typography teachers at college used to say, “The road to Hell is paved with Helvetica,” which is a phrase I’ve associated with Helvetica ever since. Now, though, I have some new associations with it, thanks to the film, and I’m pleased.



  1. I want to see that movie! *Puts it on movies to see list…*

    hehe, yes, Helvetica makes me think of Hell too, considering the Norwegian word for hell is Helvete, so reading the headline to a recent Newsweek article – “Just Go To Helvetica” immensely amused me

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