The celebrated designer discusses the history of typography, the popularity of the film “Helvetica,” and why there are only a dozen good fonts in the world.
Question: Why have you argued against the proliferation of new fonts?
Massimo Vignelli: Well you know, you have to know a little bit more about the history of typography, or type, and how it came about. You know, it was invented at the end of the 1400’s, you know, the Guttenbergs, so to speak, and then for 200 or 300 years, it went with very few different type faces. You know, very elegant, and that’s it. Some publisher had the type and printer and publisher was all one thing. And there were very few also because it was very difficult to cut type, you know, it was cut by hand and not tools besides the chisels, so to speak, and the type was this small, so it was a very refined kind of operation to do. And because it was refined, it was quite elegant. There was no room for vulgarity to get into it. So, the basic typefaces done in those years like Garamond, like Baskerville and so on. They were quite elegant—very elegant, actually, typefaces.
Then the Industrial Revolution comes about and then you can do the type in an industrial way and with the help of machines, and so on and so forth. And then because you could do it, people start to do it. The foundry started to do more type and therefore they had to sell it, to offer it. And they found the right victim in the advertising people, which they thought that they should use a different typeface for every different client. They should not have two clients with the same type. God. And so that went on and on and that became a business just wallpapers, you know, it became a business to make typefaces. And then because of that, you’ve got typeface designers, people who got into the business, they like it and the create nonsense type, things that were totally useless and things of that nature and on and on and on and on.
And so eventually, you understand, that the reason that there are a lot of typefaces is just because there’s a business, not a need. So, you begin to sift, sift, sift, sift, and you begin sifting to see which one are appropriate for one use or another and basically, as you know, the typefaces are divided into two categories, which are called serif, the one with the feet, and sans serif without the feet, the straight one. And between one family and the other family you begin to pick out the best, and at the end when you pick out the best, you wind up with about a half a dozen, or a little more of typefaces. And those are good, those are good for everything. Each one of those families are very large, you know, so they are of the same typeface you have are very thin or very big, they are straight or italic, which inclined, and things like that. So yes, there are only a good maybe a dozen. I’m very generous today since I think they – but there’s no more than a dozen, actually I don’t use much many more than three or four in my life. That is the thing.
However, exceptionally sometime I might use some other too. But not really much more than that a dozen of good typefaces and the rest you can really trash it from a design point of view. However, it’s a business that keeps a lot of people alive and what do you want to do, what would they do otherwise? So, let them do type if they like it. The only thing that is important to understand is when to use it and when not to use it, or what to use. And a good designer can come to it, you know. And they can really very well along with a few typefaces. Every good designer doesn’t use more than a few typefaces and when they’re less good, the number increase. And if they’re worse, then use all of them.
Question: Having starred in the documentary “Helvetica,” were you surprised by its success?
Massimo Vignelli: Yeah, definitely, I was surprised and very, very, very pleased too. But it’s incredible by how many people really liked the movie. People that had nothing to do with design, and how useful it has been. You have no idea the amount of people that mentioned this movie to me, everywhere in the world. I got email from everywhere in the world talking about it. I don’t say many things.
In the disc, if you get the disc, at the end there are extras, which are better then the whole movie, really. It was terrific. So, if you get the disc is fun. Any how, what is clear you see, Helvetica was born in 1957, around that time, you know, 1955, for the very precise reason I remember, before Helvetica, I was using similar typefaces and cutting together close, because we like the type to be closed. But typefaces, they came with shoulders at that time, and the great invention of Helvetica was to be make the shoulder very, very tight so you could put the type – and it’s the only type that had that, that’s why.
When we had that type that we could do that; that was B.C., Before Computer. Now with computer, you can even do that. You can do anything. But at the time, it had to be done by cutting. And so I lost a lot of type ****, a lot of letters by cutting and gluing and so on. But when Helvetica came about, that could be done fine and that is why it was so successful. And I started to use it and use it and the more you use it the more you learn how to use it, it’s just like a piano, the more you play it, the more you learn how to play it and the better player you become. And so it is with the type. And it is a great typeface, it will last forever. You know, there are others, some people like other variations of it. I’m happy with it. And I think it will last hundreds of years, you know. And there are people will write with this. Along with the ... along with the Garamond, along with the few of the great classic typefaces. And that’s it, until we [stop writing] those faces will be around, I guess.