Stop. Push. Exit. Walk.
On the streets of modern times, the written word is ubiquitous and all-important, enforcing order with signs that say “No Entry,” keeping us away from danger with “Beware of Falling Debris” or “Sharp Curve Ahead,” or even provoking desire with “Fendi” or “American Airlines.”
“The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.” —Wim Crouwell, graphic designer
In Helvetica, one of 2007’s top-grossing independent documentaries by New York filmmaker Gary Hustwit, the type in which most of these signs are rendered, particularly in Europe and the United States, is given all of eighty minutes under scrutiny. In conversations with the world’s most influential graphic designers, typographers, and design critics like Dutch graphic and type master Wim Crouwel; former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts Michael Beirut; founder of Germany’s FontShop, the first mail-order distributor of digital fonts, Erik Spiekermann; and Milan’s Massimo Vignelli, whose acclaimed works range from packaging to furniture, from showroom design to public signage, Hustwit at once extols and denounces the finer points of the typeface whose fiftieth anniversary in 2007 his film commemorated.
Modeled after Akzidenz Grotesk, the first sans-serif typeface to be widely used since it was released in 1896, Helvetica was developed by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffman in Munchestein, Switzerland in 1957. Originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, it was in 1960 rechristened Helvetica, a derivative of Helvetia, the Latin word for Switzerland, to make it more saleable around the world. The designer’s goal was to design a font “that was neutral, had great clarity, had no intrinsic meaning, and could be used on a wide variety of signage.”
Designers of the 1960s embraced Helvetica, believing it met the need for stability and order in a world still recovering from the devastation of World War II. “We were impressed by [Helvetica] because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved,” says Crouwell. As a result, Helvetica became the lingua franca of the global visual culture. Today, it is the typeface behind the world’s most famous global names like Jeep, Target, 3M, Panasonic, Marks & Spencer, Boeing, Microsoft, Energizer (batteries), and BBC News, to name a few. It is also widely used by governments. In the US, for example, the federal income tax forms are set in Helvetica. In New York, all the subway signs are in this type, too.
In Hustwit’s feature-length film, however, it’s not so much the success of Helvetica as the typeface to beat in the modern world as its effect on people who see it as a fixture in their day-to-day life. Some worship it, calling it the “ultimate font,” but others, as The New York Times reported, “blast it as the lowest-common-denominator typeface whose use both reflects and perpetuates conformity.”
As a documentary film, Helvetica is eighty minutes of a surprisingly engrossing affair with words written and spoken, all presented in a kaleidoscope of storefronts, street signs, public transport systems, statement T-shirts, and works of art. There’s little wonder that soon after it premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, it received warm reception from anybody interested in design or, even better, from anybody who ever read a signage in his life.
It’s truly an accomplishment on the part of the filmmaker Gary Hustwit to have developed a full-length feature out of such a seemingly narrow topic, no matter that the topic is as omnipresent as the Swiss typeface. But he is able to take it out of the page, out of the sign, out of the presses into a world rife with psy-wars, conspiracy theories, and gaps between and among the art movements and schools of thought without ever straying from his chosen subject.
My favorite is his interview with Paula Scher, who reveals her moral objections to the font that rules the world of types. The New York graphic designer known for her large-scale paintings of maps argues that to her the typeface of the Vietnam War was Helvetica, as official communication during the war relied heavily on the type. It was also the type of choice of all the big corporations that supported the war. “So I thought, as a designer, if you used Helvetica, you supported the war, too,” she says. Toward the end of her interview, Hustwit, unseen in the background, asks her what typeface is being used in today’s war. “You mean Iraq?” clarifies Scher and, with a glimmer in her eyes, she says, “Helvetica.”
Note: This post was originally written in 2008 for the weekly magazine Style Weekend, published in the Philippines by Manila Bulletin.
- Six Great Alternatives to Helvetica (designmodo.com)
- Opinion Column: Why Won’t Helvetica Go Away? (smashingmagazine.com)