The Typeface



A new school of globalisation studies based on micro-views, rather than macro ones, is yielding beguiling pictures of prosaic subjects. Pietra Rivoli explored wonderfully the global life of a simple product in “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy“. Marc Levinson took on the story of the container in “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger“. Tom Standage of The Economist produced “A History of the World in Six Glasses“, with drinks at its centre.

Gary Hustwit, a producer of documentaries and a former executive at Salon, has made his first foray into directing by a similar route–picking a narrow subject area and using it to illustrate broader truths. The narrow focus of his efforts is the typeface, Helvetica, from which his film takes its name. The broader subject of “Helvetica” is the globalisation of visual culture. Today Helvetica the typeface is everywhere: metro signs, airline logos, street ads, T-shirts, office software. “Helvetica” the film is doing pretty well too. Having premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, it is on course to become one of the year’s top-grossing independent documentaries.

“Helvetica” is built around conversations between Hustwit and prominent figures in the world of type design: Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Bierut, David Carson, Paula Scher, Jonathan Hoefler, and many others.

These conversations take Hustwit beyond the world of visual culture into many tangential areas. “Helvetica” ties together psychology and advertising, marketing and anthropology, cultural and urban studies.

Hustwit’s film marks the year of Helvetica’s 50th anniversary (MOMA has aHelvetica-dedicated exhibition for the occasion). Who could have thought that when Max Miedenger, a relatively unknown Swiss designer, created Helvetica in 1957 using Akzidenz Grotesk as a model, this would become the typeface of record for corporations and governments?

In the next few years Helvetica (known first as Neue Haas Grotesk) was used primarily by a coterie of Swiss designers and their clients. By the 1960s it had acquired its new name (a play on the Latin name for Switzerland, Helvetia) and attracted admirers by virtue of its clean, no-nonsense look.

Hustwit finds that Helvetica has its haters as well as its fans. Its use by governments and corporations has turned it into a target for conspiracy theorists holding it to account for all the pro-establishment messages it has carried. Paula Scher, a New York graphic designer and artist interviewed for the film, recalls how, back in the 1960s, Helvetica became a symbol of the Vietnam War, because official communication relied so heavily on the type.

One of the more plusible adjectives for describing Helvetica to a stranger would be “neutral”. If type is really the perfume of the city–a conceit of the film–then Helvetica has a scent that doesn’t smell. In this respect, “Helvetica” touches upon Foucaultian themes of control and power–threads that may acquire a new life in the subtle context of type design, particularly in the urban environment. Helvetica’s ubiquity on official documents and signs has come to embody a certain sense of stability and confidence in tomorrow. Planes won’t crash, houses won’t be robbed, nothing bad will happen: these are the indirect messages sent out by Helvetica type in the streets or in the office.

Hustwit’s film insists on the ethical responsibilities of designers towards society at large. The decisions they make may incline the people around them to be more complicit or more rebellious, to strive for more diversity or for more neutrality and homogeneity. A typical Western consumer sees more than 3,000 corporate messages per day.

But “Helvetica” is not only about the history and culture of a typeface; it’s also a film about their future. Perhaps the most important non-Helvetica issue addressed in the movie is what kind of impact technology and the Internet will have on the industry. The trade of type design is not immune to the invasion by amateurs, and, as in almost any other industry, the professionals disagree whether this is a good or a bad thing.

As some of the designers interviewed in “Helvetica” acknowledge, there has hardly been time in human history where young designers had more creative ideas and cheap technology available to them. The MySpace generation has grown up editing the graphics and the type in online user profiles. It may yet exhibit a totally different set of attitudes to the cultural monopoly of the Helvetica type.

On a pure visual level, “Helvetica” is a treat as well. It’s not one of those documentaries where you need a day’s supply of coffee to stay awake through a 90-minute stream of dense punditry. Nor is it another “Sicko”: you will not find provocative or shocking scenes. Instead Hustwit treats the audience to an eclectic mix of urban shots and interviews and spiced with charming music. “Helvetica” is what metrosexuals watch to get educated. If a documentary can count as “glossy”, then “Helvetica” is coated to perfection.

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