Film Review: Helvetica

There is perhaps a no more polarizing typeface than Helvetica. If you read the previous sentence and have no idea what I’m talking about it’s definitely worth a trip to see this documentary from (first time) director Gary Hustwit. Helvetica is the most widely seen typeface in the world. Designed in the mid 1950’s, it’s become a default font on every computer in the world and used accordingly.

People interested in graphic design or typography will love the film for the interviews with some of the titans of design, from Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli and Stefan Stagmeister. They provide good insight into their love/disdain for Helvetica and also commentary on the design field in general.

So what’s the problem with Helvetica? The main issue is that its ubiquity has stripped away most of its impact. Having been seen in such disparate places as run-down parking garages to the subways signs of major metropolises, Helvetica has reached a point where it’s basically coded into the brain of every person in the developed world. Everyone sees Helvetica, often several times a day.

I was interested in the film’s coverage of the so-called “Grunge type” era, emulated by David Carson (who is perhaps as polarizing as Helvetica). This period was a direct reaction to the standard of Helvetica and also was a time when hundreds and thousands of new typefaces were being created.

The film ended with an interview designer/writer/publisher Lars Muller, who noted that because of the new social media (he specifically refers to MySpace) everyone is able to customize the typefaces around them. This indicates that the Helveticas of the world will always be there and depended upon. But an individual’s need for self expression is also equally needed and will continued to be explored.

posted by Bryan Keplesky

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