There are among us only few who give much thought to typefaces. Most of us are happy to know the difference between serif and sans-serif, let alone what a ligature is, or whether the spacing in our morning newspaper is proportional or monospaced. Surely, for most of us, pondering typefaces takes up about as much of our time as flossing our teeth, though we spend a great deal of our lives looking at a seemingly infinite variety of them.
The people we encounter in the documentary Helvetica, however, sound as though they spend every waking second thinking about typefaces before they go on dreaming about them at night. And of all the typefaces, Helvetica in particular receives an extraordinary amount of attention. Apparently, there has been an ongoing debate over the worthiness of Helvetica taking place just under our collective nose ever since it was developed in the late-1950s. This film places that debate center stage, in the surprisingly robust and spirited world of type design. Opinions of Helvetica range from those of pure admiration to outright disgust. One designer goes so far as to voice her moral opposition to it. Another is almost moved to tears by its simplicity.
Some of the most respected, innovative, and rebellious type designers of our time appear in the film, taking us on an engaging and often eccentric 80-minute tour of Helvetica’s history and how its use has evolved over the decades. We learn how integral its appearance is to the advertising industry and federal government, as they have increasingly relied on it for products and services ranging from AT&T to American Airlines and the IRS to iPods. We learn also of its stubbornness, how even the most coordinated attempts by designers to banish it to the past have been thwarted as new generations find it too irresistible to ignore. They are inspired by the challenge to make it new rather than bored by its conventional use. One could say Helvetica has transcended mere utility to serve as a sort of ambassador to the world. How? It just won’t go away.
Obviously a labor of love, Helvetica is the kind of film that is in danger of being overlooked as at first glance it may seem to be of interest to only a specialized audience, say, one with an advanced degree in graphic design. In fact, it should have broad appeal. Typefaces have an unusually strong influence on our everyday lives; their effects may be subtle but they are worth thinking about. To devote an entire documentary to only one typeface of course sells the whole industry short, but Helvetica does a fairly good job of framing the debate as one that enlightens the viewer to the many facets of type design, including the political, economical, and even personal ideas at work behind every letter of every word that we see – intended or not.