You had me at Helvetica

When I first read that there was a documentary being made about the typeface Helvetica I nearly peed my pants. The film, directed by Gary Hustwit, features short interviews with many of my favorite designers. You can probably imagine how hard I rocked the cabbage patch doing my happy-dance when I found out I was going sit in the audience at the World Premiere during SXSW. This was probably the most exciting event for me since Ellen Lupton declared Design her religion at her lecture for the Art Directors club of Metro Washington DC.

Dressed as a typeface groupie, I sat in the enormous line to get into the screening. Upon entering I received two buttons, one reading “I love Helvetica” and the other “I hate Helvetica”. Hate Helvetica? How could you!? But indeed you can, and just as I loath the very sight of Copperplate there are a lot of designers who see Helvetica as a symbol of design conformity. Paula Sher even going as far to compare the typeface to a symbol for the Vietnam War. Quite the accusation! However, this was what was so magnificent about the film… the revelation that typefaces in themselves are an enormous process that directly contributes to the emotional impact that a piece of work has on the audience. Michael Bierut’s sheer enthusiasm talking about Helvetica is enough to make me wake up in the morning and thank god for the Haas Type foundery. Many may laugh at the idea that someone could be so passionate about a typeface, but this movie proves that even the coolest designers have a little bit of typophilia in them.
Perhaps it’s neutrality is what I love so much. Helvetica is versatile, capable of taking on the essence of it’s surroundings, yet clearly communicating the meaning of the words it so proudly presents. You can elegantly display plain black helvetica on rich white paper, and it says “sophistication”. Yet you can etch it on steel and splatter paint and it can say “badass mo-fo”. It empowers the designer to communicate the contents of their copy clearly without committing to a specific emotion up front.

At the end of the movie David Carson and Gary Hustwit spoke a little about what it was like making the film. One comment that peeked my interest was Hustwit’s explanation on how he chose the soundtrack. He explained that this is just what Helvetica sounded like to him. This really got me thinking about the correlation of typefaces with music. What does Type sound like? I thought a lot about this while Jim and I were at a show watching the band Explosions in the Sky. We both have very different tastes in music but can agree that Helvetica rocks. Though we agree on Helvetica, we both have the potential to use it very differently within our work. This level playing field is one aspect of the typeface that I find very inspirational. The opportunity to start with the same canvas as so many designers before but to create a very different result. It is a challenge.

Overall, I highly recommend taking the opportunity to see the film Helvetica. A riveting motion picture devoted to the life, love and hatred of a typeface. It will inspire the uninspired, tickle the temptation of a typohile, and continue to confuse the crap out of non-designers. Whatever category you feel you may fit in, go see it, its a well made film that is entertaining and will leave you with a better understanding of the Design industry.

[techtags: Helvetica, helvetica film , Gary Hustwit, Typophile, typography, Paula Sher, Michael Bierut, David Carson, Fonts, Design, SXSW]

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