Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a true story about The Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers in the early ’70s. There aren’t exactly twists. Ben Bradlee’s (Tom Hanks) pontification on the sanctity of the First Amendment and Katharine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) inner turmoil over the decision to publish — which wrecks personal relationships and puts her professional reputation on the line — are thrilling things to watch, but the end of the movie is right there on Wikipedia. That Graham eventually chooses to go to press is by definition unsurprising.
There is, however, one shocking thing about the movie: the font.
This is The Washington Post’s iconic typeface:
And this is a poster for The Post:
That is Helvetica, a font typically associated with American Apparel, mass public transportation, and Swedish furniture. Helvetica is not just a marketing choice; it is also the first thing you see in the movie itself.
This is jarring. A movie that is about the newspaper business — specifically one with an iconic, widely recognizable aesthetic — has chosen to use a font that is not only antithetical to The Washington Post and newspapering in general, but one that has come to be the most basic, overused typeface in all of graphic design.
Why did they do it? Why didn’t they just do as Spotlight or The Paper did? Why, with a set palette of spiritually aligned fonts, did The Post opt for a typeface that is more at home in the direction manual for the Utåker from Ikea? (20th Century Fox did not respond to my inquiries.)
In a poll taken by the staff of The Ringer, it was resoundingly decided that the Helvetica font is a good font. Not a single person was willing to call it bad. However, there was some hedging: Helvetica is “good but overexposed. I’d say it’s the blue jeans of fonts,” Juliet Litman said in Slack, a comparison three other staff members agreed with by posting the emoji of the finger pointing upward.
“I love Helvetica,” says Jay Shaw, senior creative director at Mondo, a design company that specializes in limited-edition movie posters. “It’s one of the most usable typefaces ever created. No frills, all communication.”
Helvetica — originally called Neue Haas Grotesk — was invented in 1957 by the Haas foundry in Switzerland. Its efficient sans serif style was a direct reflection of the overall modernist movement that defined art and design in the years following World War II. Typeface in the era before the war was full of flourish and ornate design. Modernists sought to completely strip those characteristics away and launch a new world of graphic design in which functionality was more important than expression — in which meaning was found entirely in what was written, rather than how it was written.
Since the late ’50s, the purely utilitarian font has grown to be so widely used that it’s nearly impossible to go a day without seeing it. Helvetica is the chosen font of brands like American Airlines, Jeep, Knoll, Urban Outfitters, Lufthansa, Verizon, Target, and more. It’s the font that adorns every train and sign used by the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority. “It’s air,” the German typographer Erik Spiekermann said in the 2007 documentary Helvetica (yes, Helvetica has its own documentary). “It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.”
From a strategic standpoint, The Post’s usage of a typeface that is as ubiquitous (and ignorable) as oxygen, and that is connected to the identities of hundreds of global brands, seemingly makes no sense. From a thematic standpoint, it makes even less sense. “The lack of serifs is dissonant with the championing of newspapers,” Litman said during our staff’s robust font-based discussion. The Ringer’s Alison Herman agreed: “The Post has a lovably messy, newspaper nostalgia feel that would obviously pair best with a newspaper-y looking font.”
“Font bad,” copy chief Craig Gaines added.
But maybe font not bad. It may be possible that there is more to The Post’s design choices than meets the eye, that the rapturous emotions stirred by this usage of typeface are intended. It may be possible that the staff of The Ringer has no idea what it’s talking about.
If you ask a graphic designer, all of the arguments against The Post’s use of Helvetica are actually arguments for it. While noting that he probably wouldn’t have gone with Helvetica for The Post’s poster, Shaw says, “I think it’s great. If I had to guess, the font was chosen to strip away decoration in favor of clear communication.” In a roundabout way, Shaw muses, Helvetica’s efficient and stark messaging isn’t incongruous with The Post’s subject matter, but in fact mirrors how those at The Washington Post cut through the clutter and obfuscation of the U.S. government in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Just as Helvetica shed the Old World’s frivolousness and ushered in a new era of clear expression in graphic design, the publicizing of the Papers forced a paradigm shift in the relationship between the people and the government.
That may be giving the designers of The Post too much credit — it feels as likely that they ran out of time and just picked the first font they saw in the drop-down menu. But even if that’s the case, the end result is ultimately effective, Shaw argues. “It’s a notable enough type choice that someone’s writing an article about it. I’d call that successful design.”