directed by Gary Hustwit
(Asmik Ace, 2007)

You don't have to be a graphic-design geek to recognize what Helvetica is. You don't even have to know exactly what it is or how it came to be. The typeface, or style of print, is so ubiquitous worldwide that it's virtually impossible to go a day without stumbling across a sign or logo emblazoned in bold Helvetica:

Crate & Barrel.
The U.S. Postal Service.

To say nothing of the logo on the side of the space shuttle.

Still not ring any mental bells? By April 15, you'll find it easy to recognize. It's the typeface used by the IRS on all its tax forms.

Helvetica, a documentary by Gary Hustwit, would seem at first glance to focus on a most narrow target audience -- people who are interested in design, and in how words and graphics meld together. But, surprisingly, this brief history of how a set of letters has come to conquer the world tosses in a little post-World War II history and some commentary from people who live their lives buried deep in the graphic arts, and it comes up with an entertaining look at something so ordinary we don't notice it -- yet something that fits so many needs that its use has crossed virtually every national boundary.

Essentially, Helvetica is an industry standard, in an industry that prizes surprise and creativity.

Sixty years ago, the Helvetica typeface was created in Switzerland through a collaborative effort as a neutral, fits-many-roles font. Graphic designers may wax poetic about its "powerful matrix of surrounding space" but, essentially, it was a no-nonsense typeface that has lent itself to the most serious of official signage (Those "Fallout Shelter" signs of the 1960s? Helvetica.) and has survived untouched, designwise, into a new century.

Its use in the American Airlines logo has remained unchanged for four decades; its use on New York City public transit signs dates back to the 1960s. It is, says one designer, "the perfume of the city," always present and yet never really focused upon. Try to name other design elements that have remained unchanged, and yet popular worldwide, for half a century. There aren't many.

Of course, there are lots of graphic designers who look at the use of Helvetica as a sort of creative copout, and the wild album designs of the 1970s pushed graphic design to the other end of the showmanship spectrum. Typefaces can be used to illustrate, to create images on their own or be deconstructed into abstraction, and other type styles lend themselves well to this "grunge" approach.

But these days, graphic design can spread more democratically than ever before. It's not just the purview of artists, or of advertising agencies searching for letters and words that make us "feel" a certain way or urge us to buy a certain product (and unadorned Helvetica is great for projecting that aura of solid, long-lasting responsibility -- whether a company deserves it or not). Everyday people now design web pages, Facebook and MySpace pages and newsletters, and they're all looking for fonts. And since Helvetica is a neutral, legible (often default) setting, it's getting used by a whole new generation. Its clarity puts the meaning on the text, not on the design itself. As one graphic designer says, you can simply "write the word 'dog,' it doesn't need to bark."

In a world of never-ending advertising/public relations/media cacophony, that may be Helvetica's biggest endorsement of all.

review by
Jen Kopf

28 February 2009

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