Sunday, November 23, 2008


Last night, Pete and I watched Helvetica (2007), the documentary about the typeface. Unfortunately, I did not like it nearly as much as I thought I would.

Pete and I are the type of people who should have enjoyed this film. Neither of us is a graphic designer, but he is a software engineer with a particular interest in user interface, while I have spent the last week analyzing the lettering on a series of Newport gravestones in an effort to attribute them to individual carvers. We were primed to like this movie.

And yet, it was disappointing. I can identify at least three specific problems I found annoying:

1) Lack of historical context: The whole point is that Helvetica was introduced in the 1960s by modernists who wanted to replace the messy, subjective, nostalgic typefaces of the 1950s with something clean, crisp, neutral, and universal. Except for a brief (and wonderful!) segment on which a graphic designer flips through a magazine from the '50s to show some before and after ads, the film provides no examples of the "before" that Helvetica was meant to correct. I would have liked a bit more background — how did typefaces change over the course of the early 20th century or even *gasp* the 19th century? Not a whole long segment, just a 3-minute montage to place Helvetica in its historical context.

2) Lack of specific context: Who are these people being interviewed? Yes, I see that this one is the son of the original designer and this one is a modernist designer who helped make Helvetica ubiquitous. But what about random youngish designer #1? Why do I care about him? And random youngish designer #6? Isn't he just repeating what random youngish designers #2-5 have already said? Who is he anyway? Well, they displayed his name (in Helvetica), so I guess that's all the information I need.

3) Lazy filmmaking: For an hour and a half, the film follows this format: rambling interview, montage of Helvetica visible in a street scene, rambling interview, montage of Helvetica visible in a street scene, rambling interview, montage of Helvetica visible in a street scene, etc. etc. Repeat. For a film about graphic design, the filmmakers could have used more technology than a single camera, aimed alternately at a speaker and a street scene. Where was the cool graphic interlude showing us why Helvetica's proportions are so lovely? Where was the "here's this poster in five different fonts — see how they convey such different messages" scene? About a dozen people assert that a typeface can convey a message, but until the segment with the 1970s "postmodernists" about 3/4 of the way through, they were just telling, not showing.

In the end, the way this film was Helvetica translated into movie form. It was crisp, clean, and uncluttered. This philosophy actually exposed the central fallacy of Helvetica, which is the belief that text can be transparent, neutral, and universal. As it turns out, without context, it's all just dull and unimportant.

1 comment:

VJESCI said...