It occurs to me that the internet looks like the internet. This sounds stupid, but it’s also to say that the internet doesn’t look like newspapers and it doesn’t look like TV and it doesn’t look like . . . well, anything else. The internet looks like its own thing, but what is that thing? And how did it come into being? It’s not as if Tyler Brûlé (Hi Tyler) came in around 2012, fiddled about with the world’s biggest MacBook Pro and a Pantone swatch book and said, “There. The internet is now officially designed. Negronis everyone?” Somewhere along the line humanity, by default, designed this gangly tentacular beast that now runs the planet. BTW, calling it The Cloud seems wrong; it is a gangly tentacular beast, and sometimes it can look transcendent (Nasa) and sometimes it looks like a soul-destroying black hole (those name-squatting sites: for example, hairbrush.com).
A few years back I received an electronic visa application form for Dubai. I opened it up and saw that it used Comic Sans font — which was kind of funny, and kind of weird, like a prank or something, until a friend explained to me that for people who write in Arabic, Comic Sans is the Roman font that looks most like what writing should look like. So it made me look at Arabic fonts and I could see the connection.
You may not be a professional typographer, but to some extent everybody’s a professional typographer these days. We all use fonts. We all talk about them. We like the fonts we like, and we don’t like those we don’t. Sometimes we want a fresh perspective on something we’ve just written so we change our words into a new font. Arial? Borrrring. Caslon? Mother of the bride. Times New Roman? You sheep. And if you ever want to know what your document really looks like without linguistic bias, simply hold it up in front of a mirror upside down. Instantly it’s Hebrew or Ukrainian or Japanese katakana — and suddenly you know what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land — or, from personal experience, to be in Russia with no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet: a magic land of upside-down numbers and an intimidating ratio of consonants to vowels.
I studied typography for four years at art school, 1980-84, roughly 10 minutes before Macs arrived. Using gouache I had to draw all Helvetica letters, numbers and European diacritical marks. It was a ton of work — and I’m not a patient person — but all that toil did make me appreciate how fonts are built in general. And when Macs arrived and I could switch fonts with a click, it was magic, and will probably always remain so in my mind. It also explains why I still find it achingly funny that This is Spi¨nal Tap had an umlaut over the “n”— probably the result of a grossly overpriced typography product called Letraset, sheets of rub-on letters that once reigned the design universe but which fumbled the digital football in the 1990s.
When I discuss the internet’s feel and its random rodeo of fonts, I think of the freedom, naivety, laziness, greed, cluelessness and skill I see there — it’s a cyberplace as wondrous as the bubbling cradle of pea-soup goo from which life emerged. The internet has a rawness, a Darwinian evolutionary texture. It’s a place where metrics totally unrelated to print typography dictate the look and feel. Does this font promote click-throughs? Does this font feel like it’s deliberately trying to annoy my eyeballs and force me, like it or not, to look at it? Does this font inspire a clinical neutrality as might be found on pharmaceutical sites? Does it look Japanese schoolgirly?
One of my art-school-type instructors was an American who was comically negative about most everything, and he relentlessly dumped on Helvetica as the sterile final end-state of modern typography. He told us that the “Swiss Modern” style taught in most schools around then (1980-84) was the final end-state of type design. Swiss Modern design was a wall, not a door. Type history was over. A few years later, Francis Fukuyama decreed that western liberal democracy was the end-state of history, and there’s actually an ontological connection between these two pronunciations, but that’s another discussion. I do need to say here, though, that people who can be counted on to be relentlessly negative about everything always end up being beloved, and we seek their opinions precisely because they’re likely to be jeremiads and screeds. We are a strange species, we are.
To go back in time, before art school’s type indoctrination, I grew up with Helvetica blossoming in my young consciousness via my father’s medical magazines. Back then they were thick with advertisements from Ciba-Geigy, Hoffmann-La Roche, Sandoz and the other manufacturers from the Rhine’s Clinicon Valley. A medical ad from 1975 would be a well-executed surrealist drawing of a melting hip bone inside a Dali-esque landscape, and the display and body type would be, of course, Helvetica. Between now and the last sentence, I looked up 1970s medical ads for sale on eBay and there are none — quite possibly because of an absence of demand — but more probably because those 1970s ads are so collectively dystopic and spooky that even the bottom-feediest of eBay salespeople would take one look at them, shiver, count their losses and go on to other sorts of magazines they could debundle and resell in bits.
I would actually like to inject a small rant here: why does the inside packaging in medical products seem to always be done in 2-point Helvetica Light? I have pretty good eyesight and it’s still a pain. Would it kill people to bump it up to 3- or 4-point?
But we’re notionally here to discuss the internet. We’re also here to discuss why its designed environments end up looking the way they do. I guess we’re using the internet as a collective Rorschach of the human hive mind. And I don’t think we can discuss the randomness of the internet without also discussing the dreadfulness of its photographic visual content. Not all content, but perhaps those sites that use clip art to attain a sense of worthy design-i-ness. There’s so much clip art out there that you don’t really notice it any more. Clip art is the visual equivalent of styrofoam packing peanuts. Your brain registers something visual in the slot where one might have expected to find genuine content and then . . . your brain moves on. It’s like a Coke Zero minus the flavouring.
Two years ago there was a meme that burned through the internet and then vanished. You might remember it. “Laughing Women Eating Salad” was exactly what it sounded like — people were collecting and comparing images of laughing women eating salad. But wait — why are these women eating salad and laughing? They’re doing so because of the clip-art industrial complex. In my mind, I see clip-art models being herded into clip-art-making facilities that possibly resemble KFC battery farms. They’re dressed in neutral garments and handed hundreds of objects and props, and with each of these objects they’re given a list of emotions and physical postures, and they cycle through the options one by one, and then move on to the next object. Honestly, after this, these poor models must be dead inside. And later on, online art directors in need of salad images realised that lettuce is the most boring vegetable on earth, and they overcompensate for this by overusing laughing salad women in salad-based articles. And they got busted for it. A meme was born — and then we moved on to the next meme. Memes are basically our species’ new food group. Our species is sick.
In 2014 London artists Felix Heyes and Ben West compiled a now highly collectible book published by Jean Bôite Éditions under the title Google, Volume 1. It consists of 21,110 words from the Pocket Oxford English Dictionary placed into Google’s image search. Arranged alphabetically, it shows the first image that appears for each word based on Google’s relevancy algorithms. However, if you don’t know this and are given the book and skim through it, you can see that there’s something specific happening — but what? The only certain thing is that it looks “internetty” — the clip art, the random imagery, the sense of visual lawlessness and the unexpected clashes of taste. This is a book that could never have existed in the past, and to browse through it is to marvel at how far we’ve come visually in the past few decades — and how blasé we’ve become. Jean Bôite plans to publish volume two in 2024, at which point we’ll have a true litmus of our visual culture’s evolution and devolution over a decade.
On Halloween 2014, I went out as clip art for my costume, which was a Plexiglas sheet on which I used a silver Sharpie to write the word “Shutterstock”. I carried it around in front of me all night. On what was a particularly nerdy Halloween, it was a hit costume and I posted a photo of it on Twitter. In the morning I woke up to a thank-you email from Shutterstock staff in their Manhattan offices. I wept noble tears.
Sometimes movies and TV use historically undereducated people to do their set dec. I realised this one evening while watching a first world war drama in which an English train station’s name was done in Helvetica Medium. This kind of time glitch is called a chronoclasm, and after seeing this one the movie was dead to me, and since then I’ve had many a movie ruined for me by typographic chronoclasms.
A friend, Nathan Shedroff, co-wrote a book, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, about how the future is depicted in film and TV. One chapter was on fonts, and the most common font used by set designers to convey futurosity is, yes, Helvetica, used in almost 50 per cent of movies and films. The runner-up, by a large margin, was Eurostile Bold Extended, which most readers will recall from 2001: A Space Odyssey. After that there’s just a mishmash of other fonts. Nathan also offered me a good piece of advice for set designers. If you need to make something look futuristic but you’re in a hurry and/or on a budget, just make it “blue and glowy”. Now that I’m aware of this trick, I see it everywhere. It’s also used in medical and toiletry imagery to convey the sense of calculated neutrality similar to that witnessed in mid-1970s pharmaceutical advertising. Wheels within wheels within wheels.
Where is all of this going? Mostly this is a stab at taxonomising a beast that will perhaps always defy any sort of formal rules or classification, and that’s a good thing. I think if you went back in time 15 years you’d be quite judgmental about how visually primitive the internet of 2001 looked: the unresolved interfaces, the default fonts, the structurelessness of it all. Even if you don’t follow design, you’d still view the internet of 2001 as primitive in many ways. And as smartphones with cameras only entered the world in 2002, pre-2002 web photography was less dense and less promiscuous than it is now, and the nascent clip-art oligarchies seemed strangely pointless. So then, who’s having the last laugh now? Getty? Shutterstock? And why would a person ever need a photo of a woman laughing and eating salad? Our species is magnificent.
Douglas Coupland’s new collection of stories and essays “Bit Rot” is published by William Heinemann (£20). A museum show of the same name is on at Munich’s Villa Stuck
Illustrations by James Joyce
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published