Helvetica: A Feature Length Film About a Typeface

After working in book publishing and producing numerous feature documentaries, award-winning filmmaker Gary Hustwit realized that, although graphic design played a pivotal role in his accomplishments, few films had been made about graphic designers. Helvetica, a feature-length documentary, is Hustwit’s vibrant homage to graphic artists and their influence on daily life. Proving that type can indeed draw a crowd, the film played to a sold-out audience of about 500 on April 29, 2007, at the PDX Film Fest in Portland, Oregon. (To find out when Helvetica will show in your town, see the ever-expanding schedule).

Hustwit saw Helvetica the typeface as the perfect vehicle for a graphic design discussion because of the face’s widespread use and its polarizing effect on designers. In the 50 years since it was designed, Helvetica has become as pervasive as the automobile in modern urban life. The film begins with the concept that designers place wires in our minds. The film’s montages of advertising, logos, and directional signs, all printed in Helvetica, in cities throughout Europe and the United States, leave no doubt that this is true (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Two examples from the film of Helvetica around the world.

Hustwit uses interviews about Helvetica with design leaders, such as David Carson, Erik Spiekermann, and Lars Müller, to trace the development of design since World War II. Part of the fascination of this movie is in watching how the typeface developed from its unassuming inception at a small Swiss factory to a lightning rod for international opinions on modern design. The viewer is alerted in the beginning of the film to the controversy ahead as fond and thoughtful recollections about the creation of Helvetica are interspersed with brief comments about bad taste permeating the culture.

Early in the film, Massimo Vignelli explains his view that the job of graphic artists is to “cure design.” The movie shows how Helvetica was used by many designers throughout the 1950s and ’60s to do just that. The face’s clean, straightforward appearance expresses the essence of modernism. The red and blue logo of American Airlines, printed in Helvetica, is portrayed as an example of a timeless design, still perfect decades after its introduction.

Yet, despite the insistence of some designers that typefaces should have no meaning in and of themselves, Helvetica began to take on characteristics of the organizations and people who employed it. Helvetica might be the ultimate expression of a sans serif typeface, with what Michael Parker calls “a perfectly executed figure ground relationship,” but designers started associating Helvetica with corporate control, bureaucratic slickness, and the Vietnam War. Younger artists began finding modernism boring and drew their own fonts to give full reign to artistic expression. As David Carson points out in the film, printing the word caffeinated in Helvetica pretty much drains it of its meaning. This is the sort of passionate, and often humorous, debate that makes this documentary so viewable and the designers in it so captivating.

Helvetica gives design professionals a fascinating look at some of the driving forces in their field. Even viewers outside the profession will find it fun and eye opening to learn more about some of the ideas that govern our visual world. (However, the 80-minute length might be challenging to some.) During the question and period answer after the film, Hustwit said Helvetica will be released in DVD this September. He promised that the DVD will contain hours of unused and possibly incendiary interviews and outtakes.

Posted on: May 9, 2007

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