What's in a Font?

Virginia Postrel talks with Gary Hustwit—director of Helvetica—about filmmaking, creativity, and the expressive implications of one of the world's most popular typefaces

NY Subway

Riding the subway to and from his job as president of Plexifilm, a Brooklyn-based independent DVD label and film production company, Gary Hustwit sees the same thing everywhere: Helvetica. The subway, he says, “is just covered in Helvetica. I wanted to know why.”

Also see:

Video: Fine Print

Graphic designer Michael Bierut comments on the development and uses of typography.

"Playing to Type" (January 2008)
A revolution in typeface design has led to everything from more-legible newspapers and cell-phone displays to extra-tacky wedding invitations. By Virginia Postrel

And it’s not just the subway. New York taxi numbers are also in Helvetica. The font is on IRS tax forms, U.S. mailboxes, and ConEd trucks. The 50-year-old sans serif font spells out countless logos: Sears. Bloomingdale’s. JCPenney. Crate & Barrel. Target. Fendi. Jeep. Toyota. Energizer. Oral-B. MetLife. Nestlé. Once you realize Helvetica is everywhere, says Hustwit, “you just can’t stop thinking about it.”

To find out why this single typeface became so ubiquitous, he made a documentary film, his first as a director. (He had previously produced five documentaries on music-related subjects.) Helvetica debuted last March at the South by Southwest Film Festival and, publicized largely through design-oriented websites and word of mouth, quickly became an international cult hit. The DVD was released in November. About a week later Hustwit received a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award in the “Truer than Fiction” category, which honors “an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not yet received significant attention.”

A typeface sounds like an unlikely subject for a movie, but passions run high on the subject of Helvetica. To some designers, it represents a kind of transparent beauty, rational and modern. To others, it’s boring, oppressive, and way too corporate. In the movie, graphic designer Paula Scher confesses that she even came to blame Helvetica for the Vietnam War. Hustwit uses the story of Helvetica to tell the story of post World War II graphic design and to demonstrate the eternal aesthetic tension between the expressive and the classic.

I talked with Hustwit by phone on December 4.

—Virginia Postrel

Nick Hornby
Gary Hustwit
(photo by Brigid Hughes)

Why make a film about a typeface?

It was something that I was interested in personally. That’s how my creative projects have worked. They’re usually things that I want to see, and I can’t believe that they don’t already exist.

Why not a film about Times Roman? What makes Helvetica so compelling?

Within the design community, Helvetica is a really polarizing issue. The people who like it are generally people who are interested in modernism, and the people who don’t like Helvetica are people who don’t like modernism. It became the emblem of late modernist graphic design and the so-called Swiss style, the international style that became hugely popular worldwide in the sixties. In the seventies, everyone who rebelled against that hated Helvetica, because it stood for a uniform, international, corporate visual language. There’s still a divide among even young designers: those who like that clean, minimal, rational style and those who want things to be more expressive and more emotional. Helvetica is that dividing line.

How do you come down on that issue personally?

I come down probably on the side of the modernists. I’ve liked both during the past 20 years. My background’s in punk rock, so I like that distressed, anarchistic visual style, yet I also like clean, Bauhaus-inspired graphics.

My opinion doesn’t really matter in the film. It’s a showcase for all these different graphic designers and type designers. I don’t like first-person documentary. I don’t care what the filmmaker’s opinions are. I care about what the subject of the documentary’s opinions are.

You designed some grunge typefaces yourself in the early ’90s. What do you learn from designing a font?

You learn that what type designers do is amazingly complicated. The level of detail that goes into all the decisions while you’re making a typeface is just incredible. How close together two different letters should be when they appear next to each other, like an upper-case T and a lower-case o, for instance. How far does that o slide underneath the top of that T? It’s called a kerning pair. You’ve got to make these decisions for every pair of letters that could possibly come together. It’s just maddening. I didn’t have any kind of patience for it.

Matthew Carter

Someone like Matthew Carter is a master of this stuff. It’s one of those art forms where the people who do it perfectly are completely invisible. It’s like they don’t want their work to be noticed. They just want people to read the message and get whatever that text is saying without any interference from the font. When people notice type it’s generally because something’s wrong with it—it’s too hard to read or it’s set too close together.

Filmmaking is going through something like the transformation that hit typography in the early 1990s, with digital tools making both production and distribution much less expensive. Is there anything that filmmakers can learn from what happened in type?

Presented by

Virginia Postrel, an Atlantic contributing editor, is writing a book about glamour. Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at www.dynamist.com/weblog. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In