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Helvetica: What’s in a Font?

When I first saw Gary Hustwit’s new documentary Helvetica at American Institute of Graphic Arts’ Intent/Content Conference in Nashville, I was skeptical. As a graphic designer, I had an opinion about the subject. I wondered how an 80-minute documentary about a typeface that I’ve been trying to avoid since the 1980s could at all be interesting. Was I surprised. Hustwit is such a good filmmaker that he can make watching water boil fascinating. But in this film, he didn’t have to do too much because the people he chose to interview were so passionate about the topic that they poured their heart out for his camera. What Hustwit ended up with was more than a film about a font. Helvetica is the best film about the graphic design profession ever made (not that there have been that many, or even one).

Helvetica is a Swiss typeface that was developed in 1957 and became, arguably, the most used typeface in the world.

At the height of its popularity in the 1970s and 80s, the font was a favorite of most designers. Ask any designers working today, and they will admit to using the font at least once. Due to its legacy, Helvetica represented clarity, corporate conformity, modernism, and boredom depending on whom you ask. The film Helvetica is an attempt to capture the history and passion surrounding this font from both a cultural and aesthetic point-of-view. Like most documentaries, there are plenty of talking heads. But Hustwit also comments on the interviews with poetic visual interludes that are both ironic and enlightening at the same time.

When I saw this movie again at Parkland College’s local premiere, I was more impressed by the structure of the film – the visual interludes, the set-up to the interviews, and the rhythm of the opposing opinions. This is simply a well-made, tight film. Graphic designers will drool over seeing industry heavyweights like Massimo Vignelli, Neville Brody, David Carson, Paula Scher and many others ranting candidly on screen. Priceless scenes of major players letting their guard down and allowing their egos to take charge pepper the film.

Even more impressive is the director’s resume. As it turns out, Hustwit was the producer of the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and Moog, about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog. Helvetica was Hustwit’s directorial debut.

If you’re curious how graphic designers think, or why some people have such passion for fonts, then this movie is a must-see. Only available locally at That’s Rentertainment (of course). That’s Rentertainment is located as 516 E. John St. in Campustown.

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