Last week I was asked to introduce Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica for a screening to UCS MA Journalism students and members of the public. Afterwards, in a question and answer session, someone unexpectedly asked if I thought Helvetica was timeless. It was a good question in relation to the film we had just watched, but not one that I had anticipated being asked, and therefore I said the first thing that came into my head, (and a little more sharply than maybe I should have done). As the thought of something being timelessness has always seemed an odd concept to me, I stated that nothing was timeless.
As a result of this knee-jerk response, the idea of timelessness has been on my mind all week. It is a phrase that crops up again and again in graphic design circles. It is often spoken of as a quality of good logo design and it is supposedly one of the characteristics that a design classic should embody, according to the cover of Phaidon’s publication on the same topic at least.
But I’m highly sceptical about this. Taking issue with Phaidon’s description, if you look at my idea of a design classic—the iconic Donor Card as written about here a few weeks ago—it could never be described as timeless. Its styling’s are very much of the 1970s.
Any piece of visual communication stays the same as the world around it moves on, leaving the item caged in the aesthetics of the time it was created. Think of one of the most famous pieces of graphic design in the history of this country—Beck’s Underground map—it is absolutely a product of its time. It may have been tweaked, altered and changed over the years, and maybe not enough each time that anyone would notice that it was dramatically different from its predecessor. But if you see the original and the current version side by side, you can automatically see that it came from a different era. Jump to a recent piece of famous graphic design, the 2012 Olympics logo, and that arguably started to date even before the games started, designed as it was 5 years previously.
To strive to make something timeless from the outset is to set oneself a challenge that I believe can never be achieved. Maybe as an old Marxist I’m still stuck with the philosophy that everything changes; but this is an philosophy that history seems to have proved right. As a designer, at best you may create some sort of longevity in a piece of work. If your creation doesn’t have to be redesigned too soon then your client can get many years of service out of it, decades even, but eventually it will look dated.
I accept that in the case of a typeface much of that dating may depend on the application. Sure, Helvetica can still look contemporary when applied well in 2014 as much as it did when it was designed in 1957, but that is because it may be used in a contemporary setting. However, there are plenty of examples from the history of graphic design where it looks outdated. I agree that one has to be cognisant of the fact that there are lots of things that can change the appearance of a typeface even if the individual characters remain the same; tracking, point size, uppercase/lowercase, background colour, supporting imagery such as illustration, photography or other graphic architecture; all will alter how you ‘read’ the form of the face and bring different meaning to it. But over time, the choices diminish and it has to be asked whether Helvetica will still have fresh ways of being applied in 1000 years time? I personally doubt it.