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Helvetica screened this week at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX
where it was very well-received. In a million years it would never have
occurred to me to do a documentary on a type font. The film makers
somehow came up with the idea of doing a cultural history of the
Helvetica font which has become the almost universal default modern
font over the past 50 years. Fonts are almost like the air we breathe.
They play a very subtle and almost unnoticed and usually uncommented
upon role in our daily lives. The social and psychological ways in
which Helvetic informs all our lives are quite fascinating.
Helvetica is a humorous film that combines a series of interview clips with a variety of often rather quirky graphic font designers with shot of various street signs and corporate logos. The film provides a great deal of insight into the role of the Helvetica font in shaping Western culture. Helvetica is both entertaining and informative in that it provides great insight into a ubiquitous aspect of modernity about which most of us are completely oblivious. I hope that many people get the opportunity to see this unusual and insightful film, because it opens a fascinating window for better understanding our society. Since versions of Helvetica are also the default font on most computers, many of us type in Helvetica constantly without even realizing it.
As I walked home from the film, I couldn't help noticing that many of the street signs in Austin appeared to be in Helvetica.
A documentary about a typeface? For those of us who take interest in
such things, of course! But if you're one of those who never bothers to
change the default font in your Word documents from Times New Roman,
then I'd recommend you stay away from this film altogether.
Unfortunately, even those who are keenly aware of typefaces may find this movie disappointing. My main criticisms:
1. It spends long sequences showing us examples of Helvetica signage used in various contexts. Some are elegant and clean, many are torn old posters, ragged pieces of letters peeling off walls, etc. These sequences were artistic and okay at first, but maybe after the fourth one, you find yourself reaching for the fast-forward.
2. It spends the vast majority of its time in interviews with various designers discussing their impressions of the font's "meaning" or its impact in the history of design. This should have been perhaps 30% of the film, instead it is closer to 80%.
3. It doesn't spend enough time looking at the technical details of the font. There are occasional off-hand references by some of the interview subjects to various features of certain letters, but even those segments are not illustrated. I would have loved to see a side-by-side contrast between Helvetica and similar sans-serif fonts used earlier, or perhaps others created since then. In one sequence, we catch a glimpse of one of the original large-scale drawings for one of the letters; I would have enjoyed seeing more of those, larger on the screen, and with explanation of how the various parts work in relation to one another.
With its current affective emphasis, this would have been an acceptable 45-min. documentary, but at an hour and a half, it is far longer than it needs to be. I hoped to walk away with an understanding of what made Helvetica uniquely popular, but that was never clearly shown in any way.
Helvetica is a beautifully created documentary about the Helvetica
font. Now you might think this is a dry and boring subject (as I did
before I saw the film) but it is in fact a fascinating tale of design
and it's implications.
I think this is a film for anyone who wants to know what design is all about. Never mind that it's based on the font it is a statement on design in general too.
The interviewed people are all extremely interesting and succeed in conveying their passions and convictions. The video work is convincing too and shows very well how common and you might say oversaturated the world is with Helvetica.
This Film WILL change how you see writing. It teaches how to look for the font and it's influence in writing and advertising.
Great film, definitely a must watch.
I saw this film last night at the Rochester Institute of Technology in
the company of hundreds of budding graphic designers, new media
specialists, and fans of typography. I found it utterly engaging. It
wasn't just a film about a font. It was a clever device used to weave a
story around graphic design, the importance of typography in the craft,
and the passionate opinions on design in general elicited from this
stellar cast of über creative professionals.
I feel that this film has a broad appeal beyond typography aficionados, which is admittedly a small tribe. The passion behind the ideals expressed by the graphic designers is undeniable and infectious.
The film was beautifully put together. The effect of showing the ubiquitous use of this font in cities around the world, with people walking by, buses, taxis, and cars whizzing past, etc. all set to a totally perfect music was wonderful. These vignettes provided transitions between interviews with world renowned designers.
You might have trouble finding a screening of this film but if you see it coming to a theater or film festival near you don't miss it!!
This is surely the best documentary I have seen. I use several metrics
A film is almost without exception a story. A documentary is usually presumed to be a found story, an existing one that the filmmaker merely exposes. We come to the thing expecting some coherent story, already formed, the problem having two threads: Can we trust the filmmaker? Does the story resonate? Often a solid position in one mitigates the other.
But real life at least the life I know has no stories that are blunt. Real stories, the ones that weave themselves through the world, are rich, only somewhat visible, immensely intriguing and often educational. I expect to be puzzled. If there are "two sides," I immediately mistrust the teller, because true movement is simply itself.
This film should be celebrated simply because it decides to present a story in its unformed state. We hear from designers young and old, clever and not. Some are geniuses and some see the genius of design and we have no idea which is which. They report profoundly different views on a typeface. Lest we think this is an irrelevant subject, the observations on the typeface are bridged by examples to show how thoroughly it has saturated.
So we are left with the same form as "Ten Tiny Love Stories," perspectives that surround the notion and instead of pulling out the answer, illuminated the mystery. The simple fact is that this is a powerful, mysterious force that makes us do things. The comparison of font design and romance is not misplaced: both somehow relate to the bricks of stories we use in constructing a life or for some of us a fort to protect from life.
So I can recommend this to you. I recommend seeing it with your partner, your real partner. And then sit with them quietly and reflect on the nature of clarity and knowing.
I can criticize this though. There is much that could easily have been said that wasn't.
Its usually presumed that spoken language is quite old and written language a relatively modern technology compromised to make it persist. In this context, type design is merely a matter of style, a choice.
But there is evidence that spoken language predates modern humans and evolved over time through collaborative toolmaking, most particularly weaving and stonechipping. Acts of hands. Shapes -- physical form, with symmetries. Spoken language in this history is itself an adaptation, and written language perhaps closer to the core of how we think. In this history, shapes matter. The process of creating form in story all manner of form matters. The story is how the story is shaped.
We bump against this intuitively. It was why the Macintosh was a giant step forward in the 80's, because storytellers could for the first time be storyshapers (publishers, in the corporate lexicon). And why Microsoft is such an evil. And why type design elements have become so deeply viral. The original features come from carved inscriptions and independently from monks' pens.
Anyway, from that Mac beginning came a focus on type as never before. And several design journals that struggled with the issues spoken about in this film. Pulling them out of print to put on screen should carry some more weight than we have here. I am hoping that some truly talented filmmaker is inspired by this.
The most edgy but still intelligent design and font design journal from the last decades is "Emigre," which you should peruse if this movie intrigues you. Also you might want to check out Darius, who was behind the first designed font.
My typeface is Vendetta.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
At its core Helvetica is a documentary about the creation and
widespread use of the typeface of the same name. If that sounds boring
to you, well guess what, it often is.
The film, directed by Gary Hustwit, begins with the birth of the typeface. It was created in 1957 by the Swiss with the hope to create a "perfect" sans-serif typeface. As a side note, a serif is apparently the little "feet" type accents that are on letters of certain typefaces, for example Times New Roman is a serif typeface. The film speaks with several type designers, a profession that I was unaware of, including the designer of Helvetica. Once the viewer has been given an adequate background on the typeface itself, the film begins to change. It wanders away from the typeface itself and becomes a documentary about graphic design. Graphic designers express both their love and hatred for the typeface as well as its effects on the larger world of design, becoming more of a film about modernism and post-modernism as it applies to this world.
Throughout the film, the director goes out into the world to shoot different signs and postings that utilize Helvetica. At the beginning, this is intriguing, often surprising the viewer with just how often this single typeface is used. However, as the director employs this technique more and more often, to the point where it seems built into the transitions, it becomes annoying. By the end, I felt like I was just being shown the same images in a film that no longer was truly just about the typeface itself.
If I were a graphic designer I may have found this film more intriguing and interesting, but sadly, this is not the case. It is shot well and the interviews seem to give a balanced opinion on the use of the typeface, but as a film, it is stretched thin, feeling overlong at its lean 80 minutes.
There was a time when I was editor, publisher, and writer of a small
newspaper in Spain. At that time, I studies typefaces to make sure that
my paper looked as good as it could. In light of that I was interested
in this documentary about the most popular typeface designed.
Helvetica has been around 50 years, and is the "default" type according to Erik Spiekermann, who really gives an exciting discussion of the type.
Many others chime in on the pros and cons of Helvetica. It is a fascinating journey into design. Exploring where we have been and where we are going in even the simple areas of life helps us understand who we are.
This movie is brilliant. It's a documentary about the creation of the
Helvetica font, sure. But it's also: a musing on the history of modern
graphic design. A diatribe (by some) about a font seen as
style-killingly ubiquitous. A visit to favorite graphic designs of
years past. A reflection about what our fonts say about us.
If you are a graphic designer, you'll love it. If you live with a graphic designer, you'll shake your head and say, "Yup" in recognition. If you don't pay any attention to graphic design, you may think about it just a tiny bit more after seeing this movie. And you will definitely come out of it with SOME opinion about the Helvetica font.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
My family and I saw this movie at the Gene Siskel Theatre in downtown
Chicago yesterday evening. Being the geek I am, when I first heard the
title, I was there! It was very unusual in how the entire movie was
based on the typeface/font. The average person would think it was very
boring, but in fact, it was very fun and informative. It was by far,
the most NOT-boring documentary i've ever seen. The movie is is
definitely directed towards graphic designers, and found it very
inspiring to go into the graphic "business"
Overall, this was an excellent movie!
I would definitely see it again!
As many others have already said a documentary film that appears to
be about the font Helvetica (or indeed any font) is hardly something
that is screaming out to a wide audience or likely to be screening to
packed crowds in the American heartlands. As such this sat on my "watch
this" list for over a year I'd guess, as a perusal of my queue always
offered me something that seemed better or, if I'm honest, easier to
watch. I eventually got round to watching Objectified which is a
similar documentary about design and, without realising that the two
films were from the same director, it motivated me to get on and watch
Like Objectified I found that the film did a great job of laying out the topic in a clear and accessible manner. It builds a very effective and engaging discussion on the font in particular but also the wider arena of graphic design and typefaces that are all around us. The structure of the film is the foundation that makes it work it doesn't jump into the deep end of the topic and it manages to be suitable for the casual viewer (which I am) while also avoiding being patronising to those that work in this sector. This is the groundwork and it is well built on by the selection and use of a very good collection of designers and experts in the field almost all of whom are passionate, well spoken, interesting and, most importantly, not "up themselves" or self-important in the way that some of those in design or art can be.
These talking heads help the film maintain an open, accessible approach while the visual design and packaging of the film itself keeps everything lively for the eye and the ear as well never going into the realm of a dry academic approach to the topic. So yes, Helvetica may sound like it is going to be a very niche film and as much fun as a holiday slideshow from a dull uncle but it is actually light, accessible and engaging due to the structure and design of the film and a great selection of contributors.
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