Alex Wright


September 16, 2007

Or perhaps I should say: Helvetica

Gary Hustwit's
documentary about that most familiar of fonts (also known as Arial, for all intents and purposes, to Windows users) is more than just the story of a typeface. As Hustwit chronicles the font's proliferation over the past 40-odd years, the story becomes a prism for understanding cultural change in the post-World War II era.

Amid the florid typefaces of the 1940s and 1950s, Helvetica represented a great leap forward for modernity: clean, san-serif, optimistic, it embodied a sharp break with the serifed, curlicued past. In the hands of master designers like Massimo Vignelli, it became the default typeface of Corporate America, ubiquitous everywhere from computer screens to New York subways to countless corporate logos. In a series of interviews, design legends like Wim Crouwel, Vignelli and his protege Michael Bierut do a wonderful job of articulating the beauty and balance of the font's design - and the seeming inevitability of its rise to cultural ubiquity.

In the post-1960s era, however, a backlash against corporate conformity gripped the design world, and Helvetica became a natural target for the rebellious designers of the 1970s and 1980s. The film gives voice to a post-modern uprising led by the likes of Erik Spiekermann (who dubs Helvetica the McDonald's of fonts), iconoclastic album cover designer David Carson and Paula Scher, who memorably indicts the font - only half-jokingly - as the cause of the Vietnam war (and the Iraq war to boot). The subsequent descent of American graphic design into postmodernism and later the grunge movement proves to be a stylistic dead end, however, in which the rejection of all previous rules plunges the design world into a state of style-less nihilism from which the only salvation, seemingly, is a return to modernism and, of course, Helvetica (with a post-po-mo twist).

The film features interviews with a couple of folks I've had the good fortune of hearing speak in person lately: master type designer Matthew Carter and the ever-eloquent Bierut (both of whom have been doing work with the New York Times lately).

After going to a Saturday afternoon screening at the IFC Center, I was pleasantly surprised to see Hustwit himself appear in person for a brief Q&A. A confessed non-designer, he did a nice job of parrying questions from an audience laden with professional designers, until someone nearly stumped him with this one: What would the world be like without Helvetica? After seeing this film, that's a difficult world to imagine.

File under: Movies

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