Whether or not most of us think about them, typefaces express a certain mood and atmosphere, and give the content of the words that comprise their text a subtle corresponding emotion — a private spell, if you will. Gary Hustwit’s engaging documentary Helvetica, about the ubiquitous same-named font, digs into this unspoken reality, telling the story of the modern world’s most popular script.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Helvetica is everywhere, it’s inescapable. Invented in 1957 by Max Miedinger and his corporate boss (and so named as a tweak on the Latin word for Switzerland, Helvetia, after its original moniker, Haas Neue Grotesk, was deemed a bit too unwieldy to peddle for sale in America), it’s the default font for corporate authority. (Target, American Airlines, MetLife, Staples, BMW and American Apparel headline the list of literally thousands of companies who use it in their logos and advertising.) Its clear lines and readability also make it widely used in traffic signs and public directive postings, including all of New York City’s transit signage.
Unsurprisingly, this ubiquity rubs some folks the wrong way, and Hustwit is wise enough to give Helvetica’s detractors ample screen time here as well. (One quotes from an old Village Voice piece, calling it “the typography of authority of enslavement.”) Given that this very academic-leaning pissing match is the only thing amounting to a dramatic through-line, the film lacks a strong, inherent pull. It basically just kind of bobs along. There’s lots of designers sharing their thoughts about the push and pull of the letters, and space in between them (design writer Rick Poynor is also an excellent interviewee, providing nice context, history and opinion), but Hustwit would have been wise to perhaps delve a bit deeper into specific work examples of why Company A went with such a choice, or Company B avoided the Helvetica font in a redesign. As is, the movie is predominantly a curio for fans of design and esoterica in general — no great sin, that, but something that could be fast-forwarded through and quick-watched without missing much of its punch.
Helvetica comes to DVD presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen, which preserves the aspect ratio of its original theatrical presentation. It is housed in a clear plastic Amaray case, and comes, somewhat unsurprisingly, with a cleanly designed menu screen which spotlights its ample bonus materials, which consist of 17 extra interviews, running a total of 95 minutes. There’s also an eight-page color booklet with photographs and a two-page essay from director Hustwit about why he chose to make the movie. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) B+ (Disc)