In Gary Hustwit's latest independent documentary, we are treated to a portrait of a familiar face – the typeface Helvetica.
Hustwit describes Helvetica through a series of interviews with articulate designers and typographers who tell the story of a font that is frequently used based on a highly adaptive character set. Helvetica is everywhere (think: Evian, BWM, American Apparel). Despite it's neutral qualities Helvetica is a face that still seems to inspire backlash or addiction in the hearts of prolific communicators.
When the Hass type foundry released Helvetica in 1957 it was embraced as the Swiss modernist antidote to overtly emotive typefaces. It was a compelling expressionless blank slate for designers to manipulate. It became ubiquitous. Popular. In the film, we see European grandfathers of design like Wim Crouwel wax poetic about Helvetica and the solutions he found lining its counters.
The backlash becomes evident when the camera turns to Erik Spiekermann's dismissals of Helvetica as simply "bad taste" and Paula Scher's political diatribe on how using Helvetica is akin to supporting the Iraq war. Scher's insight is based on the opinion that Helvetica is so generic, functional and expressionless that it advocates conformity.
The cross-bar to the circular debate between good and bad taste is drawn by Danny van den Gungen of the Dutch group Experimental Jet Set. The studio proves in their stunning posters, advertisements and book covers, that when set in the right hands Helvetica is cool.
Van den Dungen reflects on the subversive qualities of early modernists like the Dadaists and Futurists who went "against something". He laughs about the threat of conformity, explaining that the situation is beyond trends, "it is like the air we breathe" he muses.
Helvetica is a memorable glimpse at the talking heads of celebrity graphic designers and their work. They are accompanied by a satisfying score with songs from The Album Leaf, Kim Hiorthøy, and Sam Prekop – not surprising from a director whose last documentary was about Wilco (I Am Trying To Break Your Heart). Buy the DVD here; helveticafilm.com.