DIRECTOR: Gary Hustwit | INTERVIEWEES: Manfred Schulz, Massimo Vignelli, Rick Poynor, Wim Crouwel, Matthew Carter, Alfred Hoffmann, Mike Parker, Otmar Hoefer, Bruno Steinert, Hermann Zapf, Michael Bierut, Leslie Savan, Tobias Frere-Jones, Jonathan Hoefler, Erik Spiekermann, Neville Brody, Lars Müller, Paula Scher, Stefan Sagmeister, David Carson, Erwin Brinkers, Marieke Stolk, Danny van den Dungen, Michael C. Place, Manuel Krebs, Dimitri Bruni | USA
The first 30 minutes of Helvetica were what I had feared the documentary might be: a relentlessly upbeat celebration of the world’s most popular typeface, most perfect typeface, most ubiquitous typeface, with famed graphic designer Massimo Vignelli and typeface designer Matthew Carter going into ecstasies over Helvetica’s absolute perfection. But then typographer and typeface designer Erik Spiekermann makes his appearance and tells it like it is: Helvetica is not perfect (it’s extremely difficult to set properly), it’s been the default corporate typeface for 50 years and counting and is no longer a neutral face, and it was made ubiquitous by virtue of having been a default font on Macs and then Windows. Spiekermann’s dislike of Helvetica is clear and when he’s asked why he thinks Helvetica is ubiquitous, he answers by asking why bad taste is ubiquitous. The graphic designer Paula Scher goes one step further and declares her opposition to Helvetica on moral grounds: it’s the typeface of the Vietnam War and of all wars, of corporate dominance, of the Republican party. She’s amused by Helvetica’s popularity, but it’s clear that she feels contempt for it.
Director Gary Hustwit’s aim was to show not only that this “modern”, “neutral” typeface took over the world, but that designers can have exceptionally strong feelings about it. Helvetica was introduced in 1957 as an alternative to Univers and the much older Akzidenz Grotesk, two other “neutral” and “modern” sans serif typefaces that were used extensively in International Typographic Style, commonly known as Swiss Style, which dominated graphic design in the 1950s and 1960s. Hustwit provides countless examples of Helvetica’s use drawn from everything from traffic and building signage to advertisements and logos to income tax forms. Hustwit is particularly good on the backlash against the increasingly rigid conformity and rationality of Swiss Style and Helvetica that developed in the 1970s and 1980s, but less so on more recent developments. There wasn’t much that was new to me — typography is one of my passions and Helvetica (when it’s badly used, which is most of the time) and its particularly crummy imitation Arial have long been major irritants — but the presentation is engaging, clear, and to the point. I loved the film. But I do have to quibble about something. Helvetica was not the typeface of choice for Swiss Style typography as the movie suggests and as two of the interviewees, Manuel Krebs and Dimitri Bruni, assert. The great Swiss typography journal Typographische Monatsblätter, for instance, only used Helvetica on its covers twice between 1960 and 1990, and both times were long after Swiss Style’s absolute dominance had been successfully challenged. (The TM Research Archive contains images for each cover of the journal over that 30 year period. I can’t recommend the site highly enough for its visual interest alone.) In point of fact, the dominating typefaces used on TM‘s covers were Univers, which Helvetica was designed to compete against, and Akzidenz Grotesk, which is doubly ironic since that was the typeface Helvetica was specifically based on.