The Continuing Adventures of Helvetica Man, and Other News


On the Shelf

Go, Helvetica Man, go!

  • What happens when the author of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold has a cold? Pretty much nothing. He asks for a lozenge, drinks some water, drinks some Coke, drinks a martini, talks shop. “Even when you write about a celebrity you don’t learn anything new about them,” Gay Talese told Rebecca Bengal at the 21 Club: “They’re so interviewed out, they’re so spent in their explanations. Their fear—which is quite a legitimate fear—of being quoted, especially on tape, inhibits them. I don’t use tape because I don’t want direct quotations either. The way I do it, no matter who it is, I go over and over the quote with that person several times. I’m not getting the first take. I’m not interested in what they said. I’m interested in what they think.”
  • Part of the reason it’s easy to hate megachurches—ideology aside—is that they’re architecturally aloof: that is, they’re big, ugly, graceless buildings in which utility trumps beauty. That’s changing at Grace Farms, in New Canaan, Connecticut, an ambiguously evangelical community center that boasts a Japanese minimalist design that “exhibits far better taste and loftier cultural aspirations,” Martin Filler writes, “than the big-box spiritual supermarkets of the Sun Belt.” It’s founded by a hedge-fund manager, which helps. “It is not yet clear how much these efforts will contribute as a force for good. The extent to which religion gives shape to Grace Farms’ overall ethos may or may not be of overriding significance. But for all the thoughtfulness that has gone into its creation, one wonders—especially during the pontificate of Pope Francis I, present-day apostle of the poor—whether the expenditure of such immense sums, in the midst of almost unimaginably concentrated wealth, is the true path to a state of grace for those who would alleviate the sufferings of mankind.”
  • The universal symbols for restrooms, transport, currency exchange, and various other travelers’ necessities are so ubiquitous that they seem to have existed forever—in fact, they date only to the 1970s, when Roger Cook and Don Shanosky designed them for U.S. Department of Transportation. Their creation provides a robust lesson in semiotics: “Simplicity began with the male figure. The character built upon previous stylized figures from earlier symbol sets, but Cook and Shanosky’s own sleek, no-details figure set the tone for the other symbols in the DOT set. The figure has since been dubbed Helvetica Man … The discussions at the meetings covered the minutiae of Helvetica Man’s many escapades as the designers placed him in the various situations needed to convey messages to travelers. His posture as he sits in a waiting room chair was of concern, and the notes on the Waiting Room symbol are filled with maternal chiding: ‘Make person sit up straight’ and ‘Figure should not be too slouched.’ Waiting rooms, it turns out, are not happy places. Helvetica Man shouldn’t be too comfortable, or people might get confused.”
  • Michael Wood is watching The Hunger Games, and he is pleased: “Perhaps because it’s based on a lively trilogy of novels for supposed teenagers, more probably because its writers and directors knew how to have a good time with stereotypes, The Hunger Games movie series is attractive because it is so eclectic, because it raids whatever cultural bank or shopping mall is handy … [Suzanne] Collins has said she got her idea for certain aspects of the series from watching footage of the Iraq War alternately with game shows. But how the movies manage so successfully to do the campy stuff along with troubled teenage romance and the desolation of bombed cities, is a question we would have to put to the directors, Gary Ross (Hunger Games) and Francis Lawrence (the other three films). It certainly works, because the comedy and romance and terror are vividly there.”
  • Many of us are familiar with memory palaces—you know, mnemonic fortresses, vast spatial repositories of knowledge, what have you—but few of us have ever applied the concept on a scale as vast as The Chronographer of Ancient History, which Emma Willard made in 1851. It’s huge, and it’s only one part of her even larger Temples of Time series, which helped students memorize the names and eras of great philosophers, emperors, and poets, plus the rough history of Babylon, the Assyrian Empire, the Empire of David and Solomon, and much else in antiquity.