Review: Helvetica (Documentary)

Helvetica is a documentary about a typeface with the same name. That typeface is also the one in which this post’s green headline is written. And to simplify the coming discussion, I want to make clear that Helvetica is a documentary and Helvetica is a typeface.

The essential goal of Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica is to examine the history of and opinions regarding Helvetica. For those, like myself, relatively ignorant of type design and history, this is quite interesting and unexpected. Where Helvetica succeeds with a lay audience is that it introduces a previously unknown world that already has a number of strong opinions and arguments. And though chances are good that typophiles will love Helvetica for the same novelty that lay audience find in it, I can’t really speak for them.

From the outset, Helvetica presents no argument against the idea that Helvetica is the most important typeface of the last 50 years. And throughout, we’re constantly reminded of Helvetica’s pervasiveness with uncountable shots of the places that Helvetica is used. The list prominent logos which feature Helvetica is interesting: Target, Toyota, Microsoft, 3M, Crate & Barrel, American Airlines, Jeep, Staples, Lufthansa, Panasonic, and BMW. Those are merely the most prominent examples, but they give you useful insight into Helvetica’s pervasiveness and versatility.

The primary meat of Helvetica are interviews with designers who–with few exceptions–find Helvetica to be varying degrees of perfect and revolutionary. Unacquainted as I am with the world of typography, few of the commentators had names I recognized, though I did recognize the work of many. Matthew Carter designed both the Verdana and the Georgia faces. Like many other designers Carter professed that he would hate to have to try to improve Helvetica. Another commentator was sure to point out that the well-known Arial was embarrassingly bad attempt to improve on Helvetica.

The history of Helvetica is also discussed in the movie, though to the unitiated it raised as many questions as answers. Perhaps the most astounding fact to me was that there was ever a time–and it turns out today is still one of those times–when people went around selling typefaces. Not only that, but there are businesses (known as type foundries) at which people develop these fonts to be sold. And it was at such a place that Max Miedenger and Eduard Hoffman developed Neue Haas Grotesk. Wisely, their parent company Stempel (apparently foundries have parent companies…) convinced the Swiss team to rename the face Helvetica, a derivation of the Latin name for Switzerland.

With its name established, and its (massive) influence on design discussed, the detractors are interesting. One says that the font was too heavy in the middle, while another complains that it’s the font of fascism and unwanted wars like America’s involvement in Iraq. Though I can’t really understand either critique, I think it’s fascinating that people have such strong opinions about a typeface.

Whether you love, hate, or have never thought about Helvetica, Helvetica‘s certainly interesting. For better or worse, it’s hard not to think about the fonts you use and see after watching the film. Helvetica presents a world you probably never thought about, and maybe never thought existed, but it does it admirably and for it’s novelty (at least) it most certainly worth a look.

One response to “Review: Helvetica (Documentary)”

  1. Font design is one of those things in daily life that you don’t necessarily “see” , or pay attention to, same as advertising art and design. Placement and shape of characters on a page is the artform. Spacing, negative space as much as use of space…all stimulate a visceral response.
    We typically don’t know why we are influenced, but THAT we are influenced.