A long, long time ago, I decided to take a graphic arts class in High School, funny thing is, I didn't even know what graphic arts was! It was my freshman year, it was a new school, and I found myself deep in the darkness of the schools basement, standing in front of double doors that opened to a room filled with noisy printing presses. "AHAA! This is what Graphic Arts is, I had know idea!" Throughout life I often get that "I had no idea" moment, and watching the documentary Helvetica, made by Gary Hustwit in 2007, gave me another one. Even with my short time learning about type in that Graphics class many years ago, I had no idea of the amount of time and work that went into creating Typography. Even more so, I learned that the typeface that I've seen just about every single day, everywhere you look, has a name. That name is Helvetica.
As the documentary starts, the director pans through the streets of New York City and you quickly realize that Helvetica is everywhere. From company logos to subway signs to the titles of the Broadway shows – its used in so many ways. Erik Spiekermann, a German typographer says it best, "Its air, you know. Its just there. There's no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica." From there the director interviews many other typographers and designers and we learn about the history of this widely used sans-serif typeface. Helvetica was created in 1957 by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffman at the Hass Type Foundry of Switzerland. The aim of the new design was to create a neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form, and could be used on a wide variety of signage. Hustwit interviews Alfred Hoffman, former director of the Hass Foundry and son of Eduard Hoffman and he talks about the naming of Hevetica: "Helvetia is the Latin name of Switzerland. My father said, that's impossible, you cannot call a typeface after a name of a country. So, he said, why don't we call it Helve-ti-ca. So, in other words, this would be "the Swiss typeface". And they agreed." The documentary continues with interviews of other designers and they each tell an interesting story along with their interpretation of the Hevetica typeface. I admit, I have never heard of any of the designers that were in this film. One that stood out to me was David Carson because I can relate to what he says: "I have no formal training in my field. In my case I've never learned all the things I'm not supposed to do. I just did what made sense to me. I was just... experimenting, really. So when people started getting upset, I didn't really understand why, I said, "What's the big deal? What are you talking about?" And it was many years later that someone explained to me that, basically, there was this group that spent a lot of time trying to organize things, get some kind of system going, and they saw me going in and throwing that out the window, which I might've done, but it wasn't the starting point, that wasn't the plan. Only much later I learned what determines modernism, and this and that..." I went on to find out that David attended SDSU and worked as a teacher at Torrey Pines High School from 1982 to 1987. Here's where it gets even more fun; about the same time that I was sitting in that Graphics Arts class, there was a 100 percent chance that I had a Transworld Skateboarding magazine in my backpack. At the time, I loved this magazine more than anything I still have the same issues stored away in my parents attic! It turns out that David Carson was the art director of Transworld Skateboarding from 1984 to 1988 – I had looked at his work a thousand times! I am really glad that I watched Helvitca and would say it's a mandatory watch for all design students or any history buff for that matter. I am even happier that I made the David Carson connection. Until today I never had a favorite designer and when I walk by that Quicksilver window art at Surf Ride I'll smile and revel in the fact that I know who created that design.
One more note before I say goodbye. When I started to write this in Microsoft word, I just assumed that Helvetica was available as one of the default types. I was surprised to find out that its not and Arial is the closest font. Helvetica could be purchased from linotype and there are 36 different Helvetica typefaces @ $29 a piece. I think I'll be sticking to Arial!
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Fonts are part of our everyday life. Whether we pay attention to them or not, they influence the way we read and perceive texts. The Helvetica typeface is the single most widespread font family in the Western world. It’s everywhere. Street signs, logos, flyers, magazines, posters, the internet: This very blog is written in Helvetica. How did it became so popular? Where does it come from? Is it really the ultimate font? Can it be improved? Where is graphic design headed in the 21st century? And why do some people dislike it so much?
Helvetica is a fascinating documentary on a subject that I’m sure not many people give a lot of thought to in everyday life. Fonts are something we take for granted. Mostly we notice them when they are poorly used: Bad spacing, many different character sizes or the use of an odd and/or illegible typeface. In reality however fonts consciously and subconsciously influence us when we read something. This documentary really makes a point of showing how much Helvetica is used, especially in big cities (New York, Amsterdam, Zürich).
The interesting thing is that I never noticed how much it’s employed even for company logos and I’m a marketing student and generally tend to pay attention to fonts. So even if even I, someone who thinks about fonts more than the average person (or so I’d like to believe), didn’t notice I’m sure a lot more people didn’t. Another interesting thing is the story of the font and its roots in Switzerland (hey! that’s where I live), and of course the name itself indicates its origins: Helvetia is latin for Switzerland.
Director Gary Hustwit and his crew do a good job of telling the fonts’ story through a series of interviews with several experts, designers and even people directly linked to the fonts creation. Most of the interviewees provide a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes about graphic design and their unique job. Helvetica is always entertaining, though it sometimes feels a bit unfocussed and mixes up a lot of different themes and discourses. The whole “political” discussion feels a bit on the nose and isn’t handled optimally, but at least different opinions are shown.
I liked that this documentary gives everyone a chance to speak their mind, while the filmmaker doesn’t directly come out and state his personal opinion, but rather lets everything unfold organically. What the film is lacking though is explaining the bigger ideas in a convincing way. While they show the importance of fonts in our everyday life, the whole thing could have been played up even more in my opinion. Also, I just finished this film a couple hours ago and I’m having a hard time remembering a lot.
Now, that might be my poor memory and age starting to show or maybe the fact that I’m no expert and there were a lot of specific terms being thrown around that I easily mix up and forget; but it could also just be the subject matter of the film or the way it was presented. Either way I still enjoyed Helvetica quite a bit. If a good documentary is as objective and neutral as possible then this one definitely is a good documentary. Like I said it’s also quite entertaining, although it repeats itself sometimes.
Rating on First Viewing: 7.5 out of 10