Helvetica – A Review in Retrospect
Dec 2011 01
Written by Christopher Sim, Edited by Trey Seah

Apple’s iProducts. South Korean pop music. Air. 

These things are everywhere. You can’t avoid them without making a conscious effort. 

In a word, ubiquitous.

That word is bandied around a lot in the documentary Helvetica. The film is directed and produced by Gary Hustwit, and was released in 2007 to coincide with the fiftieth birthday of the font typeface family.

With the subject of Helvetica seeming to be anything but complex, one would expect the rest of the film to follow suit by being similarly transparent; indeed, Helvetica is made up of footage of ranting old men, among other things. This, however, is where the film truly shines.

Like his contemporaries Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, Gary Hustwit pieces together several interviews to make his documentary. Unlike them, however, Hustwit does not deign to force-feed you his personal opinion. Instead, he lays out the facts and leaves you to make your own conclusions.

These facts come from a series of interviews with individuals from the forefront of the typographical design field. Hustwit decided not to focus on the font, leaving it in the background and presenting it as a stalwart, unchanging detail. Instead, he spends more time on examining the matter of Helvetica and accomplishments: how it was accomplished, what it has accomplished, and how it has driven others to make accomplishments.

Helvetica’s narrative is told through creative editing of the interviews. Take for example the Helvetica’s impact on the design world. An interviewee compares the typeface to McDonald’s, saying people use it “Because it’s ubiquitous, on every corner. So let’s eat crap, because it’s on the corner.” Hustwit contrasts this by showing another designer’s pleased reaction towards the font right after. This is repeated throughout the film; contrasting opinions and fact are laid out side-by-side, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Who are the interviewees? Being less than a sub-neophyte in the field of graphic design, I did not recognize any of the names or faces that appeared on the screen, but that didn’t hold me from enjoying the unique insights and experiences the interviewees shared. Massimo Vignelli tells us that the “life of a designer is a fight, a fight against ugliness.” Mike Parker, Linotype employee, jostles us down into the underground Linotype vault and brings out the very first sketches of Helvetica. Erik Spiekermann launches into a profanity-peppered tirade on Helvetica and what he feels the type represents. And so on.

Helvetica ultimately is thought provoking, well put together, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air among the miasma of today’s politically motivated documentaries.

Helvetica isn’t just about the typeface. Rather, it’s about all the oft-neglected aspects that make up life in our world.

* ‘A Review in Retrospect’ is a series where we get SGNW members to review time-honored movies; they have yet to watch.

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