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.”
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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.
(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.
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?