I think the most common set-decorating error in films these days can be reduced to one word: Helvetica. I’ll be watching a World War I drama, and there at a train station in the background is a sign saying ”Ypres” in 200-point Helvetica Bold. Movie over — at least for me. Once I see Helvetica in any pre-1957 movie, all I can think is that the art director was so clueless he either used Helvetica in a historical drama, or hired someone stupid enough to do so, and never double-checked the work.

In art school I studied typography for several years. This was pre-Macintosh, and we had to draw fonts by hand using gouache, including numbers and diacritical marks. In 1982 there were maybe 50,000 people in North America who knew what kerning is. Today, my 10-year-old nephew knows what it is.

Typography has been massively democratized and has now done more wonderful things in 10 years than in the hundreds preceding it. I remember my type instructor, Greg, moaning, “Typography is over. Nothing new will ever happen with type ever again. Why do we even bother waking up in the morning?” I note that the moment you hear somebody say something’s over, it usually means that something massive is about to happen. Francis Fukuyama, meet Osama bin Laden and discuss the end of history.

In the world of type, Helvetica was the supposed endpoint of design. It was designed to be 100-percent emotionally neutral (yes, how Swiss, the same country that brought us sleeping pills — Helvetica is the Latin name for Switzerland), and when it was marketed in 1961, it caused a revolution, because everything the font touched it modernized. Helvetica essentially takes any word or phrase and pressure-washes it into sterility. I love it. So does Panasonic, BASF, Bayer, American Airlines, PanAm, Lufthansa, BellSouth, Hapag-Lloyd and any number of other firms that use it for their logos and as their house font.

When I began writing fiction, I was naturally curious about the relationship of words on a page and how the words look on a page. By 1995 I began experimenting freely with the “lookfeel” of words in my novel, “Microserfs.” In it I had pages of words that did and didn’t correlate to the main narrative. I did these in Helvetica. The book dealt with people who work at Microsoft (who developed their own Helvetica clone, the cheesy wannabe Arial) and I was wondering, well, if machines daydream, what would their daydreams look like? And so I did these pages, an extended example of which I present here.

PS: Helvetica is even getting its own movie!

The Pi Room

Eleven years later in “JPod,” a follow-up novel to “Microserfs,” I began messing with type again in newer ways, one of which involved presenting 24 pages of random numbers courtesy of a Yale computer. Somewhere in these pages was a capital letter O substituted for a zero, and the reader was invited to find it. The winner received a Simpson’s Groundskeeper Willie coffee mug.

Working with a curator in at The Rooms Museum in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I took large portions of the text from “JPod” and blew them up and put them onto the walls of three connecting rooms — a way of connecting words and visual art and exploring the links between the two. I also had one little side room we called “the pi room,” because on its walls were 53,000 digits of pi, done in pale green on black, a “Matrix” homage. But a very funny thing happened once it was up — people would go into the pi room, and their brains would become quiet, and they would emerge relaxed — to the point where if someone was getting stressed about the installation deadline, we’d say, “Go stand in the pi room.”

I got to thinking about it, and it made a lot of sense. When you’re looking at nothing but numbers — a numerical field painting of sorts — an interesting thing happens in your brain. Its numerical center (wherever it is located) hums into operation, while the verbal and linguistic center shuts down. But the thing is, because you’re looking at numbers but not doing anything with them, your brain is essentially in the idle mode, and hence the relaxation. A very strange thing. And it always worked. There’s that urban legend about painting prison cells pink to lower the rate of aggression in inmates. They should actually use pi wallpaper.

I Also Luv Photoshop

A selection of eye candy created mostly around 2000 when I dove into the software’s deep end.