You’ve heard the rumors: A movie about Helvetica was being produced. You’ve seen the clips. You’ve ogled at the deadpan Experimental Jetset-designed posters. You’ve read the raving reviews. You’ve wished for better days. You’ve fought jealousy induced from all those bloggers that have bragged about seeing the film premiere at SXSW or at the intimate viewing at MoMA or at any of the other major design hubs you don’t live in. You simply can’t wait for the DVD. You have placed your hopes that respect, awareness and even awe about our profession will come flooding from all the non-designers that might be interested in seeing the documentary. You, like the rest of the design world, have been in a giddy state of climactic expectancy of seeing a feature film about a font that you may hate or love. But what you haven’t heard is this: The movie, well, it’s just okay.
Before you hiss, please let me state that I am not undermining the effort, commitment and successful completion of an improbable documentary. Traveling around the world, capturing footage of the typeface in crowded urban spaces, interviewing a medley of well-spoken designers, heck, pinning David Carson — who these days seems as difficult to capture as footage of a white shark eating a seal — are all displays of determined affection that are convincingly translated into the final product. The movie is a rare and momentous feat in the immortalization of our industry, its history and some of its most illustrious practitioners. Helvetica will live forever in its potential for cult status among creative types and future generations of designers — readily available at Netflix, I hope. However, I seriously doubt it will be the mainstream success we all wish it could be — admit it, you fantasize about Gary Hustwit’s acceptance speech at the Oscars, beating out documentaries about endangered species, war-torn countries and other unfathomable tales of valor.
The film itself is just what a documentary usually ends up being: It sheds light on a subject that is of less regular interest to a larger group of people than those involved in its center theme. Invariably, the people featured come across as intense, out of the ordinary individuals obsessed with out of the ordinary subjects; talking passionately about things only they know. And Helvetica delivers these characters in all weights. Initially, and for a somewhat disconcertingly long part of the movie, all the characters are old and white — no offense to our masters, but Father Time and Mother Nature don’t lie! — and give the film a hue of unflattering antiquity, painting the profession as a once-noble craft that hasn’t seen better days since their prime. Certainly, Helvetica needs this set up, as a product of the 50s and 60s but the film dwells too much on this era and these practitioners. With a segue from the ever-evolving Matthew Carter, it’s only after Erik Spiekermann, Michael Bierut and Jonathan Hoefler enter the picture that Helvetica starts to engage and bring to life the effect of the typeface in everyday applications. Between them and the eloquent contextualization by Rick Poynor — everything coming so naturally you almost think he is reading off a teleprompter — is where the film is at its best — probably because they are of the generation that bridged the corporatization of Helvetica in the 60s and the hipsterization of Helvetica in the 90s. And you can’t do a major initiative circling the design industry without including Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister, who are both representing the Helvetica Reactionaries™ and describing their inclination to forego the systematic nature of the typeface. The biggest difference between this documentary and those about penguins, spelling bees and global warming is that we know who these people are. We’ve seen their designs, bought their monographs and, most likely, seen them live at conferences. Which is why this movie is so exciting to us and why we can’t stop trumpeting it as the greatest thing since OpenType. But to anyone outside the design industry, these are just another set of entertaining, charismatic, knowledgeable talking heads, whose names they will forget once they see the next movie. Most likely Grindhouse or Blades of Glory.
Visually, the film delivers what it promises: Lots of Helvetica. In all forms. From posters to logos to web sites to a tad too many street shots — trust me, we get it that Helvetica is everywhere around us from the first five cuts to these sequences. One of the brightest moments in the film is when famed posters of Josef Muller-Brockman and Armin Hoffman are shown on screen by being “designed” out of thin air, circles and ballerinas fading in elegantly, completing the blank canvas of the poster. Unfortunately, this only happens once. In another set up, designs come into the picture like a more elegant version of the iTunes cover-flip interface. Again, just once. In one more tease, the grid of a Wim Crouwel poster is exposed, leaving many in the audience gasping. These moments along with the opening credits are courtesy of Trollbäck + Company, Helvetica fiends themselves. I wished for more of these, despite close-ups of actual artifacts, in all their printed glory fulfilling the necessary eye candy needs. The cinematography, by Luke Geissbuhler, that everyone has been complimenting didn’t seem to stand out more than in any other documentary I have seen recently — it looks professional and it doesn’t make anyone look fat.
In terms of the content, Helvetica draws a beautiful arch — mostly aided by Poynor’s remarks — that takes the viewer from the origins of Helvetica in Switzerland as the gangly-named Neue Haas Grotesk to its ubiquity days as a default font in personal computers to its uncertain future in the hands of increasingly visual users who may or may not be designers. The film places much emphasis on the fact that Helvetica is everywhere, thriving in its neutrality, but not enough is made of the typeface itself, there is no real exploration of the shapes of the letters. Passing comments are made about the lowercase “a”, the uppercase “G” and the endings of the “c”, but a thorough examination on what these unique forms embody is missing. It’s also softly mentioned that Helvetica comes in light and bold, but no observations on what happens in between those weights or, even a more glaring omission, what happens when those letterforms were redrawn to be condensed or extended. Even when some of these less popular weights make it into the film. It’s also interesting that Helvetica’s dominance in the landscape is presented more as the result of non-designers, and designers, defaulting to it than it being the result of the process that puts Helvetica in all these places — the process of graphic design.
If anyone can cheer about this movie it’s type designers. This is the apotheosis of hundreds of years of working on the letterforms that enable communication. This one product getting recognized as basic to human interaction is a testament of the effort, care and knowledge that goes into crafting a typeface. Graphic designers, however, should put down their giant, foam #1 fingers, because this movie does not do us many favors. It reduces the process of graphic design to a typographic choice. A choice that anyone can make. It doesn’t speak to the nuances of crafting any of the posters, book covers or store awnings the movie shows. It doesn’t mention that this choice is the result of conversations with clients, the understanding of context and the practice of setting typography. It doesn’t delve into the subtle communication differences that come from using Helvetica Bold at 180 or Helvetica Light at 24 points. It mostly operates on the premise that choosing Helvetica, by default or not, defaults to an appropriate solution. As graphic designers we may cheer for seeing our heroes and the artifacts that have inspired us for 50 years in a feature film, but we should be equally concerned that Helvetica presents a simplification of our complex, and easily misunderstood, industry. If the movie rises to mainstream success, I doubt graphic designers will finally enjoy the understanding of the public at large and reap any elusive benefits of such clarity. This global appreciation that we have continually clamored for is more likely to come when hell freezes over than from an 80-minute film on a font.