Monday, January 21, 2008

Helvetica: The Movie

Helvetica is a movie about a font. A whole 90 minute movie about one, single font. A font that you use – and see – every day. It's a movie that throws around terms like typography, kerning, leading...

But the film's not just for graphic design buffs. Really. It's a genuinely interesting and well made film that opens your eyes to, well, the words and letters all around us. The words and letters typeset in Helvetica.

Helvetica is a feature-length independent documentary about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of the 50-year old Swiss typeface as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives. The film explores the urban spaces in several major cities, ranging from New York to Zurich, and the type that inhabits them. It also engages in a fluid discussion with renowned designers about their work, their creative processes, and the choices and aesthetics behind their use of type.

But why make a film about a single typeface – let alone one as ubiqitous as Helvetica? Because it's all around us. You've probably already seen Helvetica several times today. It's on your tax forms, subway signage, storefronts, TV commercials, and your computer. It might've even let you know whether to 'push' or 'pull' to open your office door.

Tracing the roots of the Helvetica back to a small foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland in the 1950s, the film charts the font's rise as a staple of corporate logos, warning signs, and any form of communication that requires a direct, pithy, and functional mode of expression. In the late 1950s, the European design world saw a revival of older sans-serif typefaces such as the German face Akzidenz Grotesk. Haas Type Foundry's director Edouard Hoffmann commissioned Max Miedinger to draw an updated sans-serif typeface to add to their line. The result was called Neue Haas Grotesk, but its name was later changed in 1961 by German parent companies Stempel and Linotype to Helvetica, a word derived from Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland.

Introduced amidst a wave of popularity of Swiss design, and fueled by advertising agencies selling this new design style to their clients, Helvetica quickly appeared in corporate logos, signage for transportation systems, fine art prints, and myriad other uses worldwide. Inclusion of the font in home computer systems such as the Apple Macintosh in 1984 only further cemented its ubiquity.

And it is precisely the font's ubiquity that the film excels at depicting. In cut scenes between locations and interviews, the film flashes a nearly endless stream of Helvetica applications across the screen. On clothing, signage, albums, faded billboards, the sides of ships, the marquees of office towers, books, products, and logos, Helvetica is everywhere. In the most dramatic of these sequences, the film shows us an endless stream of Helvetica-set logos, from early-adopter American Airlines to the Gap, American Apparel, Target, Verizon and many, many more. Likewise, in a recent interview for PRI's Studio 360, director Gary Hustwit wandered the streets of New York and was never out of sight of multitudes of applications of the font.

It's almost absurd that something so commonplace could provoke controversy but, as the film reveals, the graphic design world is split over the font's cultural connotations and artistic value, allying it as easily with fascism as socialism, progress as decline, superficiality as substance. One of the film's highlight is an interview with German typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann who goes so far as to compare the uniform appearance of the font to Nazi soldiers marching in line. In fact, every one of Hustwit's shrewdly selected interviewees has extremely strong opinions on the subject, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of generational or creative link as to why a designer will love or loathe the font; some see it as a design masterpiece which will never be bettered, others see it as emblematic of a creative drought and serves as nothing more than an easy design solution for lazy creatives.

The film also does an excellent job framing the transformation of typography from a highly refined and respected discipline in the pre-computer age to an almost casual process now. The investment in typography has shifted radically since the development of the Helvetica in 1957. When American Airlines invested in the typeface for its corporate identity they similarly invested in thousands of pounds of cut and chiseled steel – the medium necessary for the now obsolete art of typesetting. With the advent of electronic design, the entire font suite can be purchased online for only a few hundred dollars and effortlessly applied anywhere a cursor can reach.

Check out Helvetica – whether you're a design devotee or not, it's a fascinating film. But by way of full disclosure, we have to admit: This blog is typeset in Georgia. FB

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