Review: Helvetica

I grabbed this movie still from the Helvetica film website.

From January 13-17, director Gary Hustwit’s “Design for Living” trilogy was featured at TIFF, and each movie included a talk with the man himself.

I was present for the screening of Helvetica (2007), a documentary that examines the pros, cons, and history of the font we all know and love (or love to hate). The trilogy as a whole is an exploration of modern design, and the spaces that surround us.

Hustwit says the idea for Helvetica came to him in 2005, when he “really wanted to watch a film about font, but they didn’t exist.” After deciding to make the documentary, he contacted font designers like Massimo Vignelli and Wim Crouwel (both of whom were old enough to remember the creation of Helvetica in 1957), and other graphic designers, to discuss the font and its impact on design — in fact, he willingly admits he “used” a big-name like Vignelli to convince others to take part in the film.

“I contacted Massimo Vignelli first, wrote a little paragraph explaining the film, and asked him to be a part of it,” Hustwit said. “When he said yes, I emailed [other designers] and said, ‘Massimo Vignelli is going to be in it. Would you like to, as well?”

Prior to seeing the movie, I didn’t have high expectations, nor did I know what to expect. I’m far from what you would call a art student, and I don’t have much concept of design. So when I showed up to an almost sold-out screening, I had to admit I was a little shocked. But, five minutes into the movie, I understood why so many people had come: Helvetica wowed me.

Sit-down interviews with graphic designers — which were not only informative, but actually quite humorous as well — were interspersed with beautifully composed shots of New York City, where the audience was implicitly challenged to “spot the Helvetica.” (Which wasn’t really a challenge.) The documentary included a rich history for the font type, and provided both sides of the argument about its quality and usefulness. (Erik Spiekermann, a German designer, wasn’t afraid to share how much disdain he had for Helvetica, and it’s cheaper spin-off, Arial.)

Even if you’re not a graphic designer or a font enthusiast, and you don’t have any real interest in modern design, Helvetica is worth a watch. It’s clever, interesting, and accessible — and also a revealing look at how many different companies, retailers, and municipalities use the exact same font.

(This was written for the February 2012 issue of the Ryerson Free Press.)

– Kelsey


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