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Home » Tentacular: Douglas Coupland on Helvetica, clip artwork and the gangly beast that’s the web

Tentacular: Douglas Coupland on Helvetica, clip artwork and the gangly beast that’s the web


It happens to me that the web appears just like the web. This sounds silly, however it’s additionally to say that the web doesn’t seem like newspapers and it doesn’t seem like TV and it doesn’t seem like . . . nicely, the rest. The web appears like its personal factor, however what’s that factor? And the way did it come into being? It’s not as if Tyler Brûlé (Hello Tyler) got here in round 2012, fiddled about with the world’s largest MacBook Professional and a Pantone swatch e book and stated, “There. The web is now formally designed. Negronis everybody?” Someplace alongside the road humanity, by default, designed this gangly tentacular beast that now runs the planet. BTW, calling it The Cloud appears incorrect; it’s a gangly tentacular beast, and typically it may well look transcendent (Nasa) and typically it appears like a soul-destroying black gap (these name-squatting websites: for instance,

A number of years again I obtained an digital visa utility type for Dubai. I opened it up and noticed that it used Comedian Sans font — which was form of humorous, and form of bizarre, like a prank or one thing, till a buddy defined to me that for individuals who write in Arabic, Comedian Sans is the Roman font that appears most like what writing ought to seem like. So it made me have a look at Arabic fonts and I may see the connection.

You will not be knowledgeable typographer, however to some extent all people’s knowledgeable typographer today. All of us use fonts. All of us speak about them. We just like the fonts we like, and we don’t like these we don’t. Typically we wish a contemporary perspective on one thing we’ve simply written so we alter our phrases into a brand new font. Arial? Borrrring. Caslon? Mom of the bride. Instances New Roman? You sheep. And when you ever need to know what your doc actually appears like with out linguistic bias, merely maintain it up in entrance of a mirror the other way up. Immediately it’s Hebrew or Ukrainian or Japanese katakana — and immediately you already know what it feels wish to be a stranger in a wierd land — or, from private expertise, to be in Russia with no information of the Cyrillic alphabet: a magic land of upside-down numbers and an intimidating ratio of consonants to vowels.

I studied typography for 4 years at artwork college, 1980-84, roughly 10 minutes earlier than Macs arrived. Utilizing gouache I had to attract all Helvetica letters, numbers and European diacritical marks. It was a ton of labor — and I’m not a affected person particular person — however all that toil did make me admire how fonts are constructed on the whole. And when Macs arrived and I may change fonts with a click on, it was magic, and can most likely at all times stay so in my thoughts. It additionally explains why I nonetheless discover it achingly humorous that That is Spi¨nal Faucet had an umlaut over the “n”— most likely the results of a grossly overpriced typography product referred to as Letraset, sheets of rub-on letters that when reigned the design universe however which fumbled the digital soccer within the Nineties.

After I talk about the web’s really feel and its random rodeo of fonts, I consider the liberty, naivety, laziness, greed, cluelessness and talent I see there — it’s a cyberplace as wondrous because the effervescent cradle of pea-soup goo from which life emerged. The web has a rawness, a Darwinian evolutionary texture. It’s a spot the place metrics completely unrelated to print typography dictate the feel and appear. Does this font promote click-throughs? Does this font really feel prefer it’s intentionally making an attempt to bother my eyeballs and drive me, prefer it or not, to take a look at it? Does this font encourage a medical neutrality as could be discovered on pharmaceutical websites? Does it look Japanese schoolgirly?

One among my art-school-type instructors was an American who was comically destructive about most every part, and he relentlessly dumped on Helvetica because the sterile ultimate end-state of recent typography. He advised us that the “Swiss Fashionable” fashion taught in most faculties round then (1980-84) was the ultimate end-state of sort design. Swiss Fashionable design was a wall, not a door. Kind historical past was over. A number of years later, Francis Fukuyama decreed that western liberal democracy was the end-state of historical past, and there’s truly an ontological connection between these two pronunciations, however that’s one other dialogue. I do have to say right here, although, that individuals who might be counted on to be relentlessly destructive about every part at all times find yourself being beloved, and we search their opinions exactly as a result of they’re prone to be jeremiads and screeds. We’re a wierd species, we’re.

To return in time, earlier than artwork college’s sort indoctrination, I grew up with Helvetica blossoming in my younger consciousness through my father’s medical magazines. Again then they had been thick with commercials from Ciba-Geigy, Hoffmann-La Roche, Sandoz and the opposite producers from the Rhine’s Clinicon Valley. A medical advert from 1975 could be a well-executed surrealist drawing of a melting hip bone inside a Dali-esque panorama, and the show and physique sort could be, after all, Helvetica. Between now and the final sentence, I regarded up Seventies medical adverts on the market on eBay and there are none — fairly presumably due to an absence of demand — however extra most likely as a result of these Seventies adverts are so collectively dystopic and spooky that even the bottom-feediest of eBay salespeople would take one have a look at them, shiver, rely their losses and go on to different types of magazines they may debundle and resell in bits.

Illustration by James Joyce of an artist's paletter
© James Joyce

I might truly wish to inject a small rant right here: why does the within packaging in medical merchandise appear to at all times be achieved in 2-point Helvetica Gentle? I’ve fairly good eyesight and it’s nonetheless a ache. Wouldn’t it kill folks to bump it as much as 3- or 4-point?

Rant completed.

However we’re notionally right here to debate the web. We’re additionally right here to debate why its designed environments find yourself wanting the best way they do. I assume we’re utilizing the web as a collective Rorschach of the human hive thoughts. And I don’t suppose we are able to talk about the randomness of the web with out additionally discussing the dreadfulness of its photographic visible content material. Not all content material, however maybe these websites that use clip artwork to achieve a way of worthy design-i-ness. There’s a lot clip artwork on the market that you just don’t actually discover it any extra. Clip artwork is the visible equal of styrofoam packing peanuts. Your mind registers one thing visible within the slot the place one may need anticipated to seek out real content material after which . . . your mind strikes on. It’s like a Coke Zero minus the flavouring.

Two years in the past there was a meme that burned by way of the web after which vanished. You would possibly keep in mind it. “Laughing Ladies Consuming Salad” was precisely what it gave the impression of — folks had been accumulating and evaluating photographs of laughing girls consuming salad. However wait — why are these girls consuming salad and laughing? They’re doing so due to the clip-art industrial complicated. In my thoughts, I see clip-art fashions being herded into clip-art-making amenities that presumably resemble KFC battery farms. They’re wearing impartial clothes and handed a whole bunch of objects and props, and with every of those objects they’re given a listing of feelings and bodily postures, they usually cycle by way of the choices one after the other, after which transfer on to the following object. Truthfully, after this, these poor fashions should be useless inside. And in a while, on-line artwork administrators in want of salad photographs realised that lettuce is probably the most boring vegetable on earth, they usually overcompensate for this by overusing laughing salad girls in salad-based articles. They usually received busted for it. A meme was born — after which we moved on to the following meme. Memes are principally our species’ new meals group. Our species is sick.

In 2014 London artists Felix Heyes and Ben West compiled a now extremely collectible e book printed by Jean Bôite Éditions beneath the title Google, Quantity 1. It consists of 21,110 phrases from the Pocket Oxford English Dictionary positioned into Google’s picture search. Organized alphabetically, it exhibits the primary picture that seems for every phrase based mostly on Google’s relevancy algorithms. Nonetheless, when you don’t know this and are given the e book and skim by way of it, you possibly can see that there’s one thing particular occurring — however what? The one sure factor is that it appears “internetty” — the clip artwork, the random imagery, the sense of visible lawlessness and the sudden clashes of style. It is a e book that might by no means have existed prior to now, and to flick through it’s to marvel at how far we’ve come visually prior to now few a long time — and the way blasé we’ve change into. Jean Bôite plans to publish quantity two in 2024, at which level we’ll have a real litmus of our visible tradition’s evolution and devolution over a decade.

On Halloween 2014, I went out as clip artwork for my costume, which was a Plexiglas sheet on which I used a silver Sharpie to write down the phrase “Shutterstock”. I carried it round in entrance of me all evening. On what was a very nerdy Halloween, it was successful costume and I posted a photograph of it on Twitter. Within the morning I woke as much as a thank-you e mail from Shutterstock workers of their Manhattan workplaces. I wept noble tears.

Typically films and TV use traditionally undereducated folks to do their set dec. I realised this one night whereas watching a primary world struggle drama during which an English practice station’s identify was achieved in Helvetica Medium. This type of time glitch is known as a chronoclasm, and after seeing this one the film was useless to me, and since then I’ve had many a film ruined for me by typographic chronoclasms.

A buddy, Nathan Shedroff, co-wrote a e book, Make It So: Interplay Design Classes from Science Fiction, about how the longer term is depicted in movie and TV. One chapter was on fonts, and the most typical font utilized by set designers to convey futurosity is, sure, Helvetica, utilized in virtually 50 per cent of films and movies. The runner-up, by a big margin, was Eurostile Daring Prolonged, which most readers will recall from 2001: A House Odyssey. After that there’s only a mishmash of different fonts. Nathan additionally provided me a superb piece of recommendation for set designers. If it’s essential make one thing look futuristic however you’re in a rush and/or on a price range, simply make it “blue and glowy”. Now that I’m conscious of this trick, I see it all over the place. It’s additionally utilized in medical and toiletry imagery to convey the sense of calculated neutrality just like that witnessed in mid-Seventies pharmaceutical promoting. Wheels inside wheels inside wheels.

The place is all of this going? Principally it is a stab at taxonomising a beast that can maybe at all times defy any type of formal guidelines or classification, and that’s a superb factor. I believe when you went again in time 15 years you’d be fairly judgmental about how visually primitive the web of 2001 regarded: the unresolved interfaces, the default fonts, the structurelessness of all of it. Even when you don’t observe design, you’d nonetheless view the web of 2001 as primitive in some ways. And as smartphones with cameras solely entered the world in 2002, pre-2002 internet pictures was much less dense and fewer promiscuous than it’s now, and the nascent clip-art oligarchies appeared unusually pointless. So then, who’s having the final giggle now? Getty? Shutterstock? And why would an individual ever want a photograph of a lady laughing and consuming salad? Our species is magnificent.

Douglas Coupland’s new assortment of tales and essays “Bit Rot” is printed by William Heinemann (£20). A museum present of the identical identify is on at Munich’s Villa Caught

Illustrations by James Joyce


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