Fresh font is chosen to baptise Labour image: New typeface heralds break with old shibboleths

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The Independent Online
THERE is more than one way of saying that your party has begun a new era. One is to get a new leader. Another is to get a new typeface. All week, it has been hard to miss the huge letters above the platform at Blackpool, saying: new Labour, new Britain.

There's one at every conference. If you're there, it dominates the podium. If you're not, it's carefully placed to appear over the speaker's shoulder in pictures, whether on television or in the papers.

That's standard practice. The difference this year is the type. You may not have noticed. It doesn't matter: these things work subliminally.

All the words except 'Labour' were in slender, neat, clean letters. 'Labour' was in chunky, neat, clean letters - a heavy version of the same thing. The typeface was a very slight variation on one of the commonest fonts in the Western world - Helvetica.

There are two kinds of type face - serif and sans-serif, known as sans (rhymes with tans, not Le Mans). Serif means there's a little flourish at the end of each stroke. Labour's old typeface - the one that went with the red rose - was a serif face. The commonest serif face is Times - the type you are reading at the moment. The commonest sans face is Helvetica.

It was invented in the 19th century but didn't catch on until the 1950s, when modernism led designers to dump serifs (classical) for sans (modern). Helvetica is the ultimate in sans, the plainest typeface in the book, and the most widely available.

When the idea of corporate design reached the public services, in the Sixties and Seventies, Helvetica was in its element. The signs used in NHS hospitals are in Helvetica medium. So, too, are the signs that tell you what station your train is now arriving at. If it was nationalised, it had to be Helvetica.

This meant that the type face gained a reputation for dullness. If you were an ambitious designer in 1975, you would no more use Helvetica than wear straight-legged trousers. But a funny thing happened in the late 1980s. Helvet ica became fashionable.

One reason was the redesign of the Guardian newspaper, the most radical overhaul in modern Fleet Street. Out went a cosy old serif; in came Helvetica. It was used for every headline on the news and comment pages. Later it spread to the rest of the paper. Only two weights are used - heavy and light. To risk Helvetica medium would have been too radical.

Now you see it everywhere. Our Price, the chain of record shops, has a new logo: the Our is Helvetica heavy, the Price is light. The adverts for First Direct, the highly successful telephone bank, are all in Helvetica. So are those for English National Opera, and the sleeves of hundreds of dance hits.

By choosing Helvetica heavy and light, Labour has avoided any associations with nationalisation. Instead, there are deafening echoes of the Guardian, which has associations with Labour of old, but lately with youth, re-invention, trendiness, and the political centre as much as the left.

The two designs met on the Guardian's front page on Wednesday. There was a big picture of Tony and Cherie Blair on the platform. Behind them, just enough of the slogan for the reader to make out 'Labour' and 'Britain'.

Being in Helvetica (almost), the words were in perfect harmony with the rest of the page. Except they were bigger. They were bigger than the word Guardian. It was a spin doctor's dream come true.

The old Labour logo is not dead yet. It appears on the membership certificates sent out last week to those inspired by Mr Blair to join the party. But then so does Clause IV.

The old typeface is Goudy extra bold. It's not as bold as it sounds - there's nothing gawdy about Goudy. It has a pronounced serif and a lilting gait. It feels warm, gentle, caring. Helvetica feels sharp, crisp, unsentimental. But it is so widespread it doesn't have much character. As the textbook ABCs of Type (1990) says: 'It has been used for every typesetting application imaginable, and is probably suitable for each and every one of those applications.'

There is no need to Labour the parallel.

(Photograph omitted)

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