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Voice: Your Helveti-topia Awaits

As social media make self-focused information the new advertising, one typeface will continue to rule

Illustration: Ed Nacional

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You’ve seen them. Those videos that giant technology companies create to demonstrate their vision. In the spots, people do ordinary things—they fly places and use parking meters and do stuff at work and then go shopping.

That’s now. But on this page, it’s 20 minutes into the future, a future in which every possible surface—windows, doors, walls, hands, food, even other people—is covered in functionally arranged typography. Namely, Helvetica.

He climbs into a cab and Helvetica welcomes him to Istanbul and projects a map of tourist attractions on the window. She reaches for a bagel, and Helvetica in a head-up display in her glasses informs her of the caloric content. His entire desk lights up and he must only flip blobs of Helvetica data at other blobs of twirling double-helix Helvetica in order to invent some new thingy. A thingy no doubt equipped with the ability to display Helvetica at any given moment.

What is so compelling about these Helveti-topias? (Or is it Uto-petica?) These future worlds where it seems environmental artist Christo has run rampant with a glowing blue-hued sheet of Letraset? One thing that seems worth noting: They don’t have advertising (in the traditional sight, sound and motion sense) in them.

A font is a basic block of every brand’s DNA. Stroll Main Street or surf the Web for a few minutes and you are enveloped in a riot of fonts, colors and logos. But rest assured in the future this will all be gone. Brands will no longer fund communications apertures with advertising as they now do. There will only be information and we will know it is pure information, unadulterated by wicked marketers because it’s all in Helvetica.

I get that advertising is perceived as disinformation and that a future without it is seen as desirable. But doesn’t every new communications technology start out as a sort of weird, uncomfortable and rather dry public service? Alexander Bell’s original intent for the telephone was to facilitate public meetings. Early television is laughable in it’s hegemonic condescension. The Web started out as the great equalizing source of all knowledge, filled with earnest scientists and educators and anarchists. Those guys are still there, but now there’s stuff for the rest of us as well. Cat videos, games, humor.

That’s what advertising does. On a mandate of the brands that inject money into the system, advertising brings the fun, the emotion. It turns utilities into entertainment.

All except Facebook, which neatly straddles the world of information and entertainment. We find it entertaining because it is information about that which we care about the most: ourselves. It’s a travel guide of the ego for its 1 billion users.

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the character Zaphod Beeblebrox is sentenced to an awful punishment for some interplanetary misdeed. He is placed in a machine that reveals how insignificant one is in the scale of the universe. This usually results in the victim emerging as a fantastically humbled, gibbering idiot. Beeblebrox, however, is unchanged. It turns out (no surprise to him) that he is, in fact, the most important person in the universe. Beeblebrox was supposed to get an existential flogging; instead, he got a Museum of Me.

I’m as big of a fan of Swiss kerning as any designer, but that’s not the real charm of the Helveti-topia. The real charm is that it’s Facebook unleashed on the physical world. That’s my trip to Istanbul on the window. Those are my calories to be consumed. Every surface is transformed into a thing about me. Technology is simply confirming what I’ve always guessed: that I’m the most important person in the universe.

Right now, in every agency, a small group of people is huddled somewhere, bringing your clients’ brands to life “natively.” Hit fast-forward to a world where Facebook and its ilk are not relegated to phones and computer screens and where brands are only expressed in a single color, a single font, logo-less. In Helveti-topia, that small group of people might just become the most important thinkers in your agency.

I’d like to figure this all out myself. But I’m busy. I got these AR (augmented reality) glasses that will tell me how many likes I got for this article, even when I look at the print edition. All in glorious Helvetica, of course.