The Null Device

Helvetica

I just watched the film Helvetica, a documentary about the eponymous typeface. In reality, it was more than just a film about a typeface, but rather one about visual design, aesthetics and ideology in the past half-century, seen through one element so ubiquitous that it is virtually a mirror. (Helvetica's ubiquity is the key; I imagine that one could as easily have made a film titled, say, "Water", ostensibly about the subject of its title, and had it encompass anything and everything.)

The film describes the typeface Helvetica and its origins in the Haas type foundry in Switzerland, as a cleaned-up version of German sans-serifs like Akzidenz Grotesk, and the way that, either by being in the zeitgeist or happening to embody an objectively optimal design, it caught the moment, being seen as fresh and clean compared to the mess of 1950s-vintage graphic design (which would now be considered "retro" and "groovy") and was propelled to ubiquity, becoming considered boring and/or corporate, mutilated by the grunge typographers of the 1990s, and rediscovered by a new generation of designers reclaiming modernism. The film puts forward multiple points of view (Helvetica was in the right place at the right time; Helvetica stumbled onto a timeless optimum; Helvetica carries with it the core values of the modern mindset; Helvetica is ideologically oppressive/corporate/right-wing (Paula Scher asserted that it was linked to the Vietnam War); Helvetica is beautiful; Helvetica is ugly), in the form of interviews with various key designers and figures, both young and old (these have included Matthew Carter, Neville Brody, David Carson, Hoefler and Frere-Jones and so on). (Other than shedding light—from various angles and of various colours—on the legacy of Helvetica, the interviewees tell us other interesting things; for one, I found Matthew Carter's description of his typeface design strategy quite informative.) All this is intercut with extensive stills and footage of Helvetica in the modern world, which drive home the full extent of its ubiquity. The soundtrack, containing the sort of tastefully minimal post-rock (Sam Prekop, El Ten Eleven and The Album Leaf) that one would associate with neo-modernist graphic design. Alas, there does not appear to be a soundtrack album available for this film.

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