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.”
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.”