Peter Saville on Helvetica and Typography

Recognised for his record cover designs for Joy Division and New Order, Peter Saville talks about the evolution of typography and the appeal of Helvetica…

Do you believe there is a historical consciousness with typography?
Not necessarily there’s a set of responses. The issue we are talking about here is semiotics – the language of signs. In making a reference to a time, you make a reference to the values of that time – typography is a very effective signifier of values, which of course you can use in a way you might use colours in a pallet. There is a historic establishment of values.

Typography is very rich in suggested readings, which you can play with very effectively. The cultured eye reads those quite literally and unconsciously. It still picks up the meaning subconsciously. This has kind of led or fed the interest in typography. Helvetica was a strong feature in the progressive and influential iconography of our times. Films/things became identified and celebrated through their design.

Why do you think the design of typography is so popular these days?
For me the period of typography as a highly valuable energy has gone. I was interested in type when it wasn’t being explored. It’s a massively oversubscribed area now and it matters that it is done well. The evolution of type is off my agenda now.

What is your favourite Helvetica execution?
Back in the days of Peter Saville Associates in 1987, we did some type on the New Order single ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’. My colleague Brett Wickens did it and it was the first time we started playing with Helvetica. We used it for a deliberate recognition of the ’60s in the ’80s.

Do you think Helvetica can still be poignant today?
We were thrilled to use it in the 80s [but] Helvetica is a known statement now, you can’t determine anything concrete about its presence. You don’t know if it’s knowingly used, or accidental. Helvetica is completely overused, it is like the appeal of Muji – I just think can we move on – I have Helvetica on my business card – because I want people not to look at the typeface.

Why do you think it is so popular with corporate branding?
Helvetica leaves you with just the shapes. The letter is quite interesting. Other typefaces give you that with other characteristics. But Helvetica is reduced down to just letters. It will look more or less pleasing in German. German in Helvetica is really different to Helvetica in English because the letter combinations are different. Helvetica looks amazing in German or German looks amazing in Helvetica.

Do you think Helvetica changed typography forever?

There are quintessential moments in design when things changed. The iPod has changed the aesthetics of product design to that newer minimal aesthetics. This product [iPod] has been enormously disseminated amongst people. That becomes a watershed moment. You can’t go back from that – it changed the way mobiles, washing machines, etc, looked. They become markers in time. They become classics – they become dated. Although they still have their appropriate use, I would not want to see a machine with a Gill or Helvetica type in hospital. But if it’s a style mag then it’s totally appropriate.

Should typefaces be recognisable, and experimental?
When doing logos typefaces change characteristics. When we were working for Chrysalis we were using Garamond with seven letters that ended up looking not conventional by the time finished. We used letters solely to sit next to each other. [But] Helvetica takes on characteristics of the particular name [you are writing]. It has a multipurpose use whereas idiosyncrasy can be a handicap.
I suppose the triumph of Helvetica is that it is malleable in different situations.
Cripple white might be nice but then so might apple white till you think fuck it I’ll just paint it white.

Taken from interview I did. The full feature was written for and published in PrintWeek magazine, and remains copyrighted material. If you quote any part of this interview – please credit it. 
Images: Touched by the Hand of God with lettering from the Helvetica family; Pulp’s album title ‘This is Hardcore’ was written over the image of the model in Helvetica Bold to resemble a message from the censorship board.