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Helvetica – a Great Documentary and a Great Font.

Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 06:40 PM EDT

Would you believe that it’s possible to produce a fascinating feature-length documentary about a typeface? After watching “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts last night, I know it can be done. This intriguing film features interviews with renowned typographers and designers, discussing the history of the type face, its cultural significance, and aesthetic appeal. By the end of it, I was truly blown away by the implications that something as inconspicuous as a font can have.

The idea to see the movie came about when my Facebook news feed told me that IKEA had just changed their type face from Futura to Verdana, which created a fairly strong reaction in the design community and possibly beyond – to the point that IKEA had to issue a statement that basically reads “accept it and get a life”. By then, the story was all over the mainstream media.

As both the IKEA incident and “Helvetica” demonstrate, typefaces play an important role in our visual culture and daily lives; yet, we hardly ever notice them unless they suddenly change or someone produces a documentary about them. Walking home last night, I found myself scanning the urban landscape for signs and posters designed in Helvetica. They are everywhere.

Modernity and beyond

Two related themes run through most of the documentary. Firstly, Helvetica as a type face strongly reflects the transitions in arts and culture that took place in the last 50 years or so. It came about just after the second world war when modernity really took off. There was a need for a clean and simple font that could be used for any purpose; that was “neutral”, as one of the interviewed designers called it.

Helvetica then spread rapidly across the world, lending itself to numerous corporate identities, magazines, advertisements, and so on. Over time, this triggered two responses. One was that Helvetica became synonymous with globalization, with capitalism spreading recklessly, with standardization, conformity, uniformity – you get the idea. Apart from this political critique, Helvetica simply became a bit boring, given it was everywhere.

Then came what some people call post-modernity. Others, including some of the designers in the film, call it by all sorts of bad names and wish it would have never happened. Typography went from clean and neutral Helvetica-style fonts to almost complete anarchy, to “anything goes”. Suffice the example that one of the interviewed designers carved the words of an album cover into his own skin. In the end, that phase ebbed away a bit as well. And what are we left with today? Who knows…

Medium and message

The other interesting theme in “Helvetica” turns the relationships between a typeface and its surrounding culture on its head. Not only does culture influence the typeface we prefer, but the typeface also shapes this culture. It’s the visual channel through which we express ideas. It’s like a stage for expression. As such, it enables and constrains what we can say. A more straightforward way of saying this would be that there are some things you can say in Helvetica and others you cannot say in Helvetica.

In the documentary, designers disagree over this point. Some say that typefaces are merely functional. They are there to transport the meaning of the words, but other than that they should stay in the background. Helvetica is almost perfect in this regard. The reader doesn’t notice the font and goes straight to the content of what’s written.

Other designers emphasize that a typeface itself communicates something to the reader, which indeed it should. Saying something in Times New Roman is very different than saying the same thing in Comic Sans, for instance. If this was the case, which I believe it is, than we may argue that Helvetica was not only an outcome of modernity, but also an active element in facilitating its spread.