Movie Monday: “Helvetica”

Directed by:
Gary Hustwit
Format: DVD from the public library
Viewed: Friday 12/30/2011 with my wife at home

I got my second journalism job while I was still in college. For two years, I produced print advertisements as a graphic designer for The Fresno Bee’s community publications division. I use the term “graphic designer” quite loosely, since it was the mid-’90s and we were using IBM 486s, which featured about a dozen fonts and had just enough power to run PageMaker 2.0 if you shut down all the other programs that you were working in first. The big upside to getting my start in that environment was that all of the ad reps wanted their clients’ ads to look special and different, and so I had to learn very quickly how to use all the basics of design and layout to make a tiny number fonts consistently do the work of a million fancy requests.

The font Helvetica got a real workout.

Helvetica is such a sturdy, efficient, and iconic typeface, and I was happy to get reacquainted with it this past semester on the first assignment for my graphic communication class. My graphics instructor recommended seeing the Gary Hustwit documentary about Helvetica to appreciate the importance of the world’s most ubiquitous family of type. I’m glad that I did. The movie is the first in Hustwit’s design trilogy that looks at the power of typography, design, and urban planning in our daily lives. The director filled the movie with fascinating and eloquent historical dialogue about the font, and some excellent criticism of using design for purposes of control.

My favorite idea in the film came from Wim Crouwel, a Dutch typographer whose work I first came across years ago as part of the Peter Saville-designed sleeve to the Joy Division compilation “Substance.” Crouwel, speaking of his love for Helvetica, said: “The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.” Thinking back to my days as a beginning designer more than 15 years ago, it seems like I’ve always agreed with him.

7 thoughts on “Movie Monday: “Helvetica”

  1. Ah yes, I remember those early days as a graphic designer too. In fact, I remember sitting next to you as we all tried to get as creative as the limited sources enabled us. So much has changed, but the classic Helvetica has still remained. As recently as last Thursday during my ArtHop travels, I engaged in a discussion about type fonts with friends, as they noticed the different choices diplayed at the galleries for their artist statements and/or title and artist name signs. Interesting how a specific choice of font can affect how some people feel about the art.

  2. Aileen, those early days designing for Neighbors, Real Estate Showcase, and Vida en el Valle taught me so much! The only thing I don’t miss is the paste-up composition.

    Josh, I was inspired to watch “Helvetica” not only by my graphics instructor but also because of Filmworks bringing “Urbanized” to the Tower Theatre on Friday, Jan. 13. Really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen. Look for my review of “Urbanized” next week on the blog.

  3. I think I remember you loving Helvetica back in the days that you were helping me with Pagemaker. I had such a hard time with that newsletter. But you were very patient and knowledgeable. You and Helvetica saved me.

  4. I enjoyed a lot of the same ideas that you did. It struck me that there could be social control in a font, but I now believe it. Heck, prison gangs use(d) Old English fonts to communicate as part of their message. Marshall McLuhan wins again.

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