Helvetica: The Movie

When Helvetica was first designed 50 years ago, only designers and typesetters knew anything about typefaces. Today, we use them all the time, choosing to put an essay in Times New Roman (God forbid), Arial, or maybe Georgia. We pick fonts for websites, posters, and e-mails — most of us without thinking about it too much. (To clarify: “Helvetica” is a typeface; “Helvetica 12 bold” is a font.) Very few of us have ever wondered where Helvetica came from. That is, except Gary Hustwit; his documentary Helvetica premiered this year in honor of the typeface’s 50th birthday, and it played in Pittsburgh last weekend.

Designer Max Miedinger developed Helvetica in Switzerland, when sans serif typefaces (without little feet on the bottoms of the letters) were regaining popularity. Miedinger originally named his typeface Neue Haas Grotesk, but luckily the German company in charge of marketing changed the name to Helvetica after the Latin name for Switzerland, Helvetia. Helvetica is a clean, modern, regular typeface, stripped of the flourishes and finials that characterize typefaces trying to imitate hand lettering. It appeals to designers looking for a font that doesn’t distract the reader, including American Apparel, Target, Greyhound, New York’s subway system, Apple (the iPhone interface uses only Helvetica) and the Canadian government. Today, Helvetica is arguably the world’s most popular typeface.

Hustwit’s documentary features interviews from designers who use typefaces like Helvetica in their daily work and a few who design typefaces themselves. Some of those interviewed hate Helvetica, declaring it soulless and overused; others love it, proclaiming it ideal for anything from street signs to corporate logos. The film also explores examples of Helvetica in everyday life, from fliers to airplanes.

Although the film’s premise might seem a bit esoteric, Helvetica is easily accessible to non-designers, and includes enough compelling moments to keep viewers interested; a designer sets an article he found poorly written in unreadable Zapf Dingbats; another creates an advertisement by scratching bloody letters into his bare chest and photographing them. It’s impossible to leave the film without finding Helvetica everywhere — on a Forbes Avenue street sign, on the side of a bus, or on the cover of a textbook.

Why make a movie about a typeface, anyway? Although most of us use them often, “few people realize that someone drew each letter by hand,” explained designer and associate English professor Suguru Ishizaki. “This movie can help people appreciate that typefaces come from human designers.”

Every word you read or type is based on shapes someone drew by hand or on a computer. Nowadays anyone can be a type designer, thanks to the availability of software, but that doesn’t mean their typefaces are any good.

Helvetica ends with the somewhat melancholy message that for type designers there is little new ground to cover, left in the world of type design. Ishizaki disagrees. “People designed particular fonts for computer and cell phone screens,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of surface type might be put on in the future.” Moving type presents a blank canvas too; maybe a particular typeface would look better as it zooms around in a Flash animation.

If you missed Helvetica but find yourself called by the fabulous world of typefaces and fonts, you’ll have to wait; it’s only playing in select theaters, but it’ll be out on DVD in November. In the meantime, check out Helvetica vs. Arial, the Flash game where you can stick the classic typeface on its Microsoft clone, Arial. Play for free at www.engagestudio.com/helvetica.