Walking, Helvetica, and Other Pedestrian Things

There is a lot of richness in the everyday things, but we often miss it.  

Consider a documentary that Maria and I watched the other night called Helvetica.  That’s right–a documentary about a font–or “typeface” to be more precise.  And not just any typeface.  It’s a typeface that is so ubiquitous that even if you stop at some random time during the day, no matter where you are or what you are doing, you can probably find something written using Helvetica–signs, newspapers, magazines, T-shirts, advertisements, logos (American Airlines, Jeep, Microsoft, and Panasonic to name a few).   It’s on street signs throughout the country, including, for example, all the signs for the New York City subway.  NASA has it on the side of the space shuttle.  I guess that means it’s among the first fonts to be used in outer space.  (Who knows?   Maybe it is the official font of the universe.)  It’s a typeface that is not supposed to say anything except what the text itself says.  It was designed for clarity and neutrality. Maybe we take Helvetica for granted, forgetting that someone (or someones–Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann, in fact) dedicated serious effort to create it.  

Now I find myself actively looking for this typeface when I’m walking about town.  It really is amazing how many signs use it.  Maybe I’m crazy. While other people are walking down the street thinking about “important” things, here I am looking at signs and thinking, “I wonder what font that is on that sign?”  But, there is something rewarding about being the only one on the whole block who can look at a sign and say, “Yep, that Crate & Barrel sign is written in Helvetica.”

If a documentary about typefaces doesn’t get you going, consider the article that I was drawn to in the New York Times flying to San Francisco yesterday afternoon.  On the front page were pieces about the financial crisis and reconstruction programs in Iraq–stuff that really matters.  But, in a later section of the paper was an article about walking.  That was the article for me.  The article is a review of a book entitled The Lost Art of Walking:  The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism by Geoff Nicholson.  Pedestrianism has a philosophy!?  You better believe it does.  Did you know the Norweigans have more than 50 words for walking, 40 percent of pedestrians killed in car accidents are drunk, and Wordsworth walked more than 180,000 miles during his lifetime?  I guess the author of the book has written a number of novels while walking.  It’s a way of shifting our states of consciousness according to Iain Sinclair.  Certainly, those of us who sit at a keyboard typing the day away know the value of a good walk for shaking up the mental world.    

So, next time you take a stroll, be sure to remember that you are not just putting one foot in front of the other, or going from point A to point B. You are participating in a “lost art” that has benefits other than mere transportation.  And while you are on that stroll, keep your eye out for Helvetica and other remarkable, everyday things.


About rsdunlapiv

Computer science PhD student at Georgia Tech

3 responses to “Walking, Helvetica, and Other Pedestrian Things”

  1. Heather says :

    You’re not alone…Michael thinks about fonts while walking around all the time. Sadly, now I do, too. BTW, I’m not sure Crate & Barrel is in Helvetica. The “C” is wrong….

  2. rsdunlapiv says :

    Good eye, Heather. I believe Crate & Barrel has modified it a bit–rounded out the “C” in particular. Of course there are now many flavors of Helvetica out there, but it’s easy enough to spot typefaces that are in the same family…

  3. Megan Murphy says :

    Dear Strongbad,

    Have you finished your house yet?

    As one facebook stalk led to another, on a sleepless night in Roswell, I happened upon a blog entry by one Rocky Dunlap. Very enjoyable, Mr. Dunlap. I have been at a loss for inspiration in my own writing and it is a good reminder that one only need look around and appreciate the thought and design that went into everything we come in contact with.

    Megan from Berkeley, CA

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