I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a typography aficionado because I know far too little about the subject, but a general interest in type design (expressed in my constant search for the perfect typeface for different writing styles, even if I always end up using Baskerville, Garamond, and Times New Roman) and even more general interest in design (see pretty much everything I’ve posted related to book covers) have driven my desire to watch a documentary film by Gary Hustwit about the world’s most widely used typeface for a long time.
That was a pretty long sentence just to tell you that I watched Helvetica.
Here’s a short one to tell you that I liked it.
The film is a very effective and well-wrought object in itself, just like the typeface whose history and wide use it illustrates. The images are crisp, wide, and suggestive. There is a certain element of contemplation that perhaps gets a little overused—the viewer is invited to look at a lot of type and play the “spot Helvetica” game—the overall effect is actually rather uplifting and fun. And it does urge us to look at the world more carefully to notice what we usually wouldn’t.
In a way, I was afraid that the film would be too much about typefaces. As much as I love the idea of typefaces and as much as I like looking at them (if you’ve never taken a look at Taschen’s beautiful book Letter Fountain, I strongly urge you to do so), watching a designer play around with ascenders, descenders, and serifs for a whole 90 minutes is beyond my intellectual capacities. But, actually, Helvetica uses its star typeface as a kind of thematic link in order to explore the history of design in the 20th century. Where the film truly shines is in letting designers from different generations, and therefore different movements, speak up about their aesthetic beliefs. The history of any art form, of course, can be summarized in a series of calls and responses; the film does a really great job of illustrating that chain of influence in design with several beautiful, intriguing, exciting examples to showcase the different periods.
If you watch Helvetica and liked it, I also recommend that you take a look at Hustwit’s other two films about design (ostensibly, these three films make up a kind of trilogy), Objectified and Urbanized.
By all means, if there are any other books or films about design or typography that I should know about, please post them below!