Write a few church newsletters in WordPerfect and you’ll soon get tired of Helvetica, hoping to find a font face with a little more character. Maybe Comic Sans or Playbill or... ooh! Copperplate! But do that enough times and your newsletters start looking cheap. So maybe it’s best to stick with Helvetica after all.
If that’s you, then you’re re-enacting the epic battle depicted in the sparkling documentary Helvetica.
Sans Serif Bold
- Extended interviews
A documentary about typography with lots of talking heads — particularly one about Helvetica — sounds like it should be boring. Filmmaker Gary Hustwit plays off of that perception to make a better-than-expected movie. Maybe choosing “Helvetica” as the title is his strategy is to steer away audiences who have absolutely no interest in typography. With the hostiles whittled away from the audience, Hustwit is free to unleash his interviews with giants in the world of typography.
Our first subject is Massimo Vignelli, an advocate of Helvetica who designed the transit signs for the city of New York. We also meet Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, David Carson, and a slew of other designers I’d never heard of (yet who my graphic-design colleagues revere).
Some documentary filmmakers choose a niche subject and find hard-core obsessives to go on-camera. There are documentaries about collectors of 8-track tapes, of Schwinn Stingray bicycles, and Star Trek conventions. At first glance, you might think that Hustwit has done the same thing. But actually, typography is universal. People live their entire lives without seeing an 8-track, a Stingray, or a “con.” But whether you know it or not, you can’t escape typography. So already Hustwit has a leg up over other documentary filmmakers.
Still, making a good documentary involves more than simply choosing a subject and pointing a camera in the faces of some experts. Hustwit showed strategic smarts in choosing Helvetica as his starting point. Instead of being an open-ended documentary about typography, he gives his subjects a point of reference and his movie a theme.
The second thing he did well (with editor Shelby Siegel) was to edit the movie so that it tells a story. Choosing the subjects and footage carefully, they give the film three acts.
Act 1 explains that Helvetica really was a revolutionary leap. Michael Beirut illustrates this best by looking at magazine ads from two eras: one from before the 1950s, when the typography rule was “anything goes,” and another from the 1960s where everything is orderly and clean with lots of Helvetica.
Act 2 introduces “grunge typography.” Designers were reacting against the all-business, stoic, boring, rules of design that made Helvetica synonymous with everything that was wrong with design. David Carson illustrates this with a bunch of single words, printed on squares, in Helvetica. “That doesn’t say ‘caffeinated,’ it’s just sitting there. There’s nothing ‘extramarital’ about that. That’s not a fun ‘sandlot.’”
Act 3 brings the first two acts together for something of a reconciliation. Good design can be both clean and rule-based, and also grungy and expressive.
When all is said and done, Helvetica ends up a documentary about typography with lots of talking heads. And yet, through the skill and smarts of the filmmaker, it is much more interesting than what your average documentarian might have come up with.
The extra features on the DVD consist entirely of extended interviews with the subjects. There is another full hour of footage for die-hards to watch. The subjects are presented individually, although if you choose the first interview and let it run, you can watch them all. The best moment of the entire DVD is in Spiekermann’s extra feature. Hustwit asks him, with a straight face, what his favorite letter is. It’s a question I haven’t heard since Sesame Street, and yet it’s completely appropriate in this context. Without missing a beat, Spiekermann answers “lower-case a.”
Picture and Sound
The documentary is mostly talking heads, with the occasional street scene illustrating the use of Helvetica in the public sphere. The photography is professional and clean, like Helvetica. It’s not a movie you’d use to work out your home theater, though.
How to Use This DVD
Watch the movie and enjoy. Then switch to the extra features and watch the interview with Spiekermann. If anyone else caught your fancy, watch their segment; otherwise, turn it off.