Movie Review: “Helvetica: A Documentary Film” by Gary Hustwit

Recently I read that this is the “Golden Age” of the documentary. Whoever wrote this must have had the documentary Helvetica by Gary Hustwit in mind… or at least they should have.

Helvetica is a surprisingly compelling film that explores the world of graphic design and typography through an examination of what has become in 50 short years the most ubiquitous of all type-faces in the world, Helvetica. Through wonderful interviews with people as varied as the son of one of the men who first helped to design Helvetica in 1957 to “famous” graphic designers and typographic artists who first used and championed it, Hustwit explores the very nature of how graphic design and typography work to shape and change culture and us.

I first became aware of graphic design and typefaces in the mid 1980s when I began working as an editor at an old-fashioned publishing house that still ran one hot-lead press and a number of big German-made, 4-color presses. I remember learning the language and concepts of Linotype and leading and serifs and sans serifs… learning to think  for the first time ever of the way the medium of typeface can visually convey meanings that enhance or detract from “actual” meanings of a word.

Watching Helvetica brought all of that back to me, words and concepts I have not thought of for years. And while that experience certainly helped enrich the film for me, I do not think that my experience or familiarity was necessary in anyway to my enjoyment of film.

Helvetica is enjoyable because Hustwit found people to interview who are so passionate about the subject of typography and design. Passionate people are interesting by defintion. When passionate people are also articulate they are fascinating. Helvetica is fascinating, compelling, and worth watching precisely for this reason.

For more information on the documentary Helvetica visit the official site by clicking here.

A Few Memorable Quotes

Rick Poynor: Type is saying things to us all the time. Typefaces express a mood, an atmosphere. They give words a certain coloring.

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Michael Bierut: Everywhere you look you see typefaces. But there’s one you probably see more than any other one, and that’s Helvetica. You know, there it is, and it seems to come from no where. You know, it seems like air? It seems like gravity?

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Jonathan Hoefler: And it’s hard to evaluate it. It’s like being asked what you think about off-white paint. It’s just… it’s just there. And it’s hard to get your head around, it’s that big.

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Erik Spiekermann: Most people who use Helvetica, use it because it’s ubiquitous. It’s like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food. Because it’s there, it’s on every street corner, so let’s eat crap because it’s on the corner.

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Michael C. Place: For me Helvetica is just this beautiful, timeless thing. And certain things shouldn’t be messed with, you know?

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Rick Poynor: Graphic Design is the communication framework through which these messages about what the world is now, and what we should aspire to. It’s the way they reach us. The designer has an enormous responsibility. Those are the people, you know, putting their wires into our heads

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Richard Poynor: Type is saying things to us all the time. Typefaces express a mood, an atmosphere. They give words a certain coloring.

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Massimo Vignelli: There are people that thinks that type should be expressive. They have a different point of view from mine.

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Massimo Vignelli: You can say, “I love you,” in Helvetica. And you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy. Or you can say it with the Extra Bold if it’s really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work.

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Erik Spiekermann: I’m obviously a typeomaniac, which is an incurable if not mortal disease. I can’t explain it. I just love, I just like looking at type. I just get a total kick out of it: they are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or, you know, girls’ bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It’s a little worrying, I admit, but it’s a very nerdish thing to do.

 

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