Blood Type

01.06.09

Gary Hustwit, Helvetica, 2007, still from a color video, 80 minutes.


THE TYPEFACE HELVETICA, known for its neutrality, clarity, and apparent emptiness, makes for loaded subject matter. Investigating the history, politics, and application of the world’s best-known typeface, Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica (2007) is about more than typography or graphic design—it is also an engaging exploration (itself performed with an almost winking impartiality) of late modernism’s inexorable impact, for better or worse, on our daily lives.

Through interviews with some of typography’s most notable designers and historians of the past fifty years, Helvetica soberly and scrupulously charts three familiar, but still fascinating, chapters of aesthetic development since the font’s inception in 1957. Hustwit speaks with Helvetica’s creators, as well as some of its earliest enthusiasts—Massimo Vignelli (“high priest” of modernist design), Wim Crouwel, and Matthew Carter—who passionately and eloquently defend Helvetica’s claim to being the most modern and rational typeface. Underscoring their arguments’ idealism, Crouwel emphatically states, “Creating order is typography.” Vignelli introduces opposing arguments with amused disdain: “There are people that think type should be expressive. . . . There are people who, when they write ‘dog,’ think it should bark.”

Enter the “expressionists,” designers we now associate with the ’80s—David Carson, Stefan Sagmeister, and Paula Scher—each of whom takes umbrage with, among other things, Helvetica’s corporate appeal. Hustwit illustrates their point via montages of iconic logos: Con Edison, Toyota, Crate & Barrel, Target, Verizon, MUJI, Jeep, Sears, Greyhound—all somehow different and immediately identifiable, yet all designed with Helvetica. They note the alacrity with which governments and institutions adopted Helvetica as the typeface of authority. Scher goes so far as to derisively call Helvetica the font of the Vietnam War. And so in response, the expressionists infuse their work with all things un-Helvetica: the handwritten, the experimental, the stylized, the emotional, the do-it-yourself—or, as designer Michael Bierut calls it, “grunge typography.” Hustwit reminds us that this typographic free-for-all roughly coincides with the advent of desktop computing, which, while it enabled more people to get in on the game, didn’t necessarily foster more talent. (On this point, even the modernists and postmodernists agree.)

In true thesis-antithesis-synthesis fashion, the film culminates with a third, less rigorously contrarian wave of designers, who, while not rejecting the criticisms of the previous generation, embrace Helvetica on their own terms. Danny van den Dungen, of Experimental Jetset, speaks specifically of a reinvestment in early modernism’s subversive intentions through the use of Helvetica's late-modernist form. As a designer of this generation, I, too, cannot imagine rejecting such a ubiquitous, sophisticated tool. Could an architect reject the elevation? This is the extent to which Helvetica is the embedded language of graphic design. Perhaps van den Dungen says it best: “It is almost like a natural mother tongue. . . . It is almost in our blood.”

Helvetica has its US television premiere on PBS beginning January 6. For local station times, check here. Gary Hustwit’s latest documentary, Objectified has its premiere in March 2009; a trailer of that film can be found here.

Joseph Logan