Helvetica

Helvetica (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Gary Hustwit
viewed: 01/23/08

Ubiquitous.

That is the word for helvetica.

Not much.

That is the phrase for how much I knew about this typeface prior to seeing this documentary.

It’s got to be said, a documentary about a typeface is not the sexiest marketability for a film.  I’d read in several places that this was, in fact, an interesting documentary, and so I gave it a spin.  And it is.  For those of us, like myself, who didn’t attend college for design or don’t work so directly with design and typefaces and fonts (though I also do), it’s interesting to hear about the development of this font, to realize how embedded it is culturally, and to hear the typeface designers and other designers, both purely modernist and radically post-modernist or whatever generation we are in now speak about Helvetica.  To realize its place in design, culture, and our lives.

The film starts with the people that loved Helvetica when it came on the scene, a modern, 20th century typeface, balanced and clean, neutral, and able to communicate.  The passion it inspired and its ultimate overuse culturally, picked up by innumerable corporate logo designers, becoming the face of so many things that it is pretty invisible to the average person.

Then the film moves toward Helvetica’s critics, the people who find it too ubiquitous, too representing of corporate blandness, and all that seems to represent.  We are shown constantly throughout the film a multitude of signage in many European languages how common and often it is used.

But then the film moves into the contemporary designers, the younger set, 20-30 year olds, who have come back to embrace the typeface and utilize it in new and different ways.  The perceptions and aesthetics and discourses are fascinating for some of the passion that they evoke.  To look at a letter “h” in the sort of detail that designers do is something radical for me.  I think it’s a fascinating thing to stop to recognize and analyze the simple structures around us, the invisible ones to the uninitiated or the unrealized.  I am curious how my friends who are designers would take this film.  And for the designers interviewed, I have no idea how important or well-known they are within the industry.  It’s quite something, really.  Perhaps not a brilliant film in itself, though quite well-done.  It’s the ideas that resonate.

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