Imagine flipping through the cable channels, and stopping when you see an unbelievably gaudy television set with hundreds of people in the audience. The host has platinum hair and an atrocious double-breasted suit. His wife (because there is always a wife) is dolled up with pounds of makeup on her face, and–if you’re lucky–you catch the program when she’s crying “for joy of the Lord” and that mascara is streaming down her cheeks.
Imagine that you see a man asking for hundreds, thousands, millions of dollars to do his work in the name of Jesus. To prove his calling he heals the blind and the lame, often through dramatic and theatrical histrionics, including knocking people over as they are overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Until I was in my early twenties, this was my world. I grew up in a religious tradition I call “Charismatic Fundegelicalism.” To be Fundegelical was to be overtly expressive and emotional. Your passion for Jesus must be readily apparent. You must be “radical” and “on fire.” Any “lacking in zeal” was cause for being reprimanded or, worse, shunned. It was the height of tautological religion in that it attempted to prove its worth simply by its very existence.
I am an introverted man, and quickly grew weary of this form of faith. I needed something more stable, something less ostentatious. What I found was the Presbyterian Church and the Swiss Reformed Tradition of John Calvin. I found clear thinking and consistent boundaries. I found logic and balance. I found a form of faith that provided me with a framework within which to explore and suggest. I was no longer required to give myself wholly over to the extravagant trappings of a spirituality bent on making me “feel” above all else. I was encouraged to consider the content of my faith as almost more important than the expression of it.
Is it any wonder that I have developed a deep and abiding love for Helvetica typeface?
Designers are mixed on the use of Helvetica. Helvetica (properly, “The Swiss Font”) was a revelation when it appeared in 1957. Born of a time when most typefaces were ornate scripts that had become muddled and lacked any kind of consistency, Helvetica signaled a modern era in design. Designers used Helvetica to ensure the clarity of their text, for it had no intrinsic meaning in its form. Companies from American Airlines to Apple adopted it as their go-to for text. New York City’s transit authority rendered all city signage in Helvetica, and every tax form you fill out uses the font.
To lovers of the typeface, Helvetica is a healing balm, for it takes the confusion out of communicating. Typographer Wim Crouwel:
“The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface, and that is why we loved Helvetica very much.”
Others disagree. “Grunge typographer” David Carson:
“Don’t confuse legibility with communication. Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates and, more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing.”
So I find that I’m left with this choice in my design life as in my religious life: How do I want to express what my convictions are? What is the “proper” form with which to share things I believe are exciting and worthwhile (typographically), to express the profound experience of God that I have had (religiously)?
For me, it always comes back to the Swiss Font and the Swiss Church. I am most comfortable with the Swiss way. I dislike clutter and chaos. I love order and balance. I crave the parameters that both Helvetica and the Reformed Tradition place on me. I revel in the extra inspiration I am forced to mine in myself that would allow me transcend the staid form I have chosen to work with and in.
My choice of typeface and religious tradition require the same thing that the structure of a haiku requires of a Japanese poet: to accept the form and transcend it, creating beauty in the process.Landon Whitsitt is writer, speaker, theologian, and artist. He is the author of Open Source Church: Making Room For the Wisdom of All and Theology is Art. He considers himself to be “Midwestern But Not Religious.”