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.”

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"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?

The democratization of technology, whether it’s graphic design technology or filmmaking technology, is a double-edged sword. It lowers the barriers of entry so a lot of new designers or filmmakers can express themselves. It also completely clutters up the landscape with a lot of crap. There are some interesting things that YouTube has brought to a larger audience, but if you look at the percentage of stuff on YouTube that’s in any way worthwhile in a cultural sense, it’s a very tiny percentage.

The work that goes into making a documentary film is just so much more than most people would think when they watch a half-hour TV program or a hour documentary. There is so much more work in terms of the editing and the sound and the cinematography and everything else. When everybody has access to tools to do this sort of thing, you’d hope that it would make people appreciate what goes into a great documentary. I hope people understand that a hundred people worked on this film.

You went to 90 screenings around the world, some with general audiences and some with graphic designers. How different were their responses? What were the questions that everyone asked?

Why make movie about a typeface? That’s the number one question. What’s my favorite font? How do I feel about Helvetica? How did I choose the designers in the film? Those were the most-asked questions. Even when we showed it at film festivals where it was non-designers, people who like documentary film, the response was the same.

One thing I discovered was that graphic design students are exactly the same in every country and even look exactly the same. They wear the same clothes. It is a truly global network of designers. I did feel very much like I was showing the film to the same group 90 different times.

One of the fun things about the film is the way it shows so many different uses of Helvetica. What’s your favorite?

The World Cup banner in Berlin. We just happened to be driving by and looked up and saw a guy suspended from ropes 50 feet in the air, stitching up these giant letters of Helvetica on this block-long banner for the World Cup. Almost all the Helvetica footage in the cities that we shot we just happened upon it randomly. The goal was to find interesting uses or people interacting with type. The World Cup banner epitomized that. I also wanted to find big Helvetica, and it was some of the biggest that we found.

WATCH AN EXCERPT from Helvetica in which the World Cup banner is featured:

The film raises the question of whether Helvetica can remain neutral after it’s been used so much. How much of a typeface’s meaning comes from its formal elements versus the associations that build up over time?

Typefaces do pick up baggage from how they’re used. When I look at Helvetica, I think of American Apparel. I think of American Airlines. One of the things that’s amazing about Helvetica is it has been used or overused for decades, yet we still see it everywhere. And very forward-thinking young graphic designers still use it the same way it was used in the sixties. I can’t explain why, with the thousands of fonts that people have to choose from now, a large percentage of them still choose to use Helvetica.


How much did the film cost to make and distribute? How did you finance it?

Low six figures is the ballpark. It was mostly just my own money and credit cards and friends and family. A Canadian design shop called Veer came on as a corporate sponsor toward the end of the project.

Would it have been much more expensive if you had made it 20 years ago?

Probably. We shot 60 hours of film. If we had shot it on celluloid film, it would have been more expensive. And the editing process is much cheaper now. You can do it on a high-end Mac system. The biggest expense is still people, getting a good cinematographer, a good editor, and good sound people. That doesn’t change. If you want to do something great, you need to bring great people.

Do you know what your next project is?

The music films I’ve been involved in, and definitely Helvetica, have been about creativity—the creative process—and also about communication. I think those two themes will recur in my next film. There’s a trend over the last five or ten years of people thinking that documentary has to be political in order to be worthwhile. I think that’s a shame. There’s this other side of documentary filmmaking that looks at creativity and other issues that aren’t about social justice or war—that are just as important to consider. It’s like you can’t have only nonfiction writing and never have any novels. I’m going to continue to make films about creativity, about art, about communication, and hopefully people will come and see them.