“Mean Bastards!” complains type designer Erik Spiekermann about Microsoft. What is the cause of his disquiet? Nothing more or less than the billion dollar corporation’s refusal to license fonts from their official designers, preferring instead to make minor adjustments and rename them. That anyone could get so worked up about a typeface is an indication that, to many people, type really matters. It’s this conviction that encouraged Gary Hustwit to make Helvetica, a surprisingly compelling documentary about a fifty year old font which is the most commonly used typeface in the world.
Helvetica is a sans-serif font designed in Switzerland in 1957. Already, upon hearing this information, my head was swimming until it was explained – with calm authority – that ‘sans-serif’ meant letters without serifs and that a serif is a little detail on the end of a letter stroke. I am typing this using Book Antiqua which is a serif font. You are reading it on DVD Times in a sans-serif font. There, that’s cleared up. Since its inception, Helvetica has become ubiquitous, not least because Microsoft adapted it as Arial which was the standard on the pre-Vista versions of Windows. This ubiquity might not have been achieved had the original name been used – Neue Haas Grotesk – since that sounds like a German bondage nightclub to me. The name was changed in 1960 to Helvetica which means, literally, the Swiss typeface. The typeface has its origins in a post-war desire to make information democratic by presenting it in a clear, easy-to-read font. However, fifty years on, Helvetica is seen as the typeface of big-business and, for many people, the enemy of individuality.
The inevitable response to the prospect of viewing Helvetica is, why would anyone want to make a film about a font? Well, Gary Hustwit’s answer is that fonts affect our lives because they are everywhere, sending out signals and communicating with us almost independently of the messages they are spelling out. Large numbers of people hate Helvetica for what they see as its stifling social conformity and the way its supposed neutrality leads consumers to confuse marketing messages with informational messages. Hustwit’s film features the designer Paula Scher ranting about how Helvetica was the font of the Vietnam War and is now responsible for the conflict in Iraq. Other people, notably graphic designers such as David Carson, hate it because they consider it safe and boring; Carson seems, by his own admission, to have built an entire career around a reaction against Helvetica.
There’s much entertainment value to be had in watching Paula Scher mouth radical platitudes with toe-curling smugness and viewing David Carson’s revolutionary but hilariously dated work on the magazine Ray Gun. Both designers have the kind of absolute certainty in their own coolness that makes me want to scream. Erik Spiekermann and Stefan Sagmeister are rather more interesting and considered, although one constantly gets the feeling that the anti-Helvetica fraternity are a lot more censorious and illiberal than the supporters. Is it that adopting anti-corporate attitudes has become just another 21st century pose? Or do I have, somewhere deep within my liberal soul, a knee-jerk reactionary fighting to get out?
Gary Hustwit’s film is elegant and made with enormous skill. Although produced on a small budget, it has a sense of scale and expansiveness to it, created largely through excellent location filming throughout the world. The montages of Helvetica’s use within various cities are spellbinding, backed with a delightfully off-beat soundtrack. Each interviewee gets a respectable amount of time to put their points across - sometimes giving us a rare insight into the creative process of how a font is designed - and the film is admirably even-handed; although some might think that the refusal to come down on one-side or another of the debate is a drawback in these days of passionately committed documentaries. Personally, I found this refreshing. When you finish watching Helvetica, you feel fully informed and as if you have been awakened to something, you don’t feel worked-over. It changes the way you look at the world.
Helvetica, which is still showing in some cinemas across the UK, has been released in the USA on a splendid region-free DVD from Plexifilm. The film is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 and the image is anamorphically enhanced. It’s a very strong presentation of the original HD-Video material with excellent contrast and colour. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is also admirable, presenting the interviews very clearly and making the most of the unusual music score.
The disc is enhanced by 95 minutes of bonus interviews, featuring most of the designers from the film. These are obviously deleted scenes and they don’t follow any obvious narrative but there are some fascinating observations contained within, including the comments about Microsoft that I quoted at the start of this review. All of these are presented, like the main feature, in anamorphic widescreen.
I’ve seen a lot of documentaries in the past few years and can honestly say that I enjoyed Helvetica more than most of them. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a world I didn’t really appreciate or understand, a world where the battles of modernism are still being fought. This DVD presentation is admirable. Highly recommended.