red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Helvetica

Documentary
Director: Gary Hustwit
Theatrical release: 2007; available on DVD


It's not just graphic designers, artists, or other people in the biz who will be interested in and fascinated by this look at a type font. A type font? Yes.

Now that more of us live on computers, we think we know more about those collections of characters that give the alphabet in a range of distinctive looks. Helvetica. Arial. Verdana. Zapf Dingbats. As with everything, though, we have a lot to learn.

For those who remember the good old days — say, the 1980s — before the personal computer (especially, before Apple's Macintosh) became ubiquitous, you'll be carried back to that nostalgic time in the wonderful documentary film Helvetica: it opens with an example of how letters became words in the metallic lines required by printing presses, the kind of moveable type bequeathed to us by Gutenberg.

The images harken back to my days running the media services department at a community college. Over the course of a few years in the mid-1980s, we moved from analog to digital, so to speak, leaving behind that metal-typesetting kind of sign-making system for the digital world of the Mac, PageMaker(!) software, and laser-printed documents. It wasn't always pretty and it wasn't always easy.

Some would, and do, say that by democratizing the printing process, especially the creation of type fonts and styles, the entire state of graphic design and visual communication has devolved into chaos. On the other hand...

Helvetica shows the ubiquity of a type font that came out of the 1950s, moved through the pop-art Sixties, and stays both relevant and useful today. The film provides such a range of examples, interviews, and opinions, it's more than possible for us to remain engaged in the dialogue of visuals and graphics.

After all, just look around. The Helvetica type font, a "powerful matrix" of the "figure/ground relationship...properly executed," shows up in corporate logos ranging from American Airlines and Lufthansa to Sears, Jeep, Target, Crate&Barrel, the U.S. Postal Service, Toyota, North Face, J.C. Penney, SAAB, Texaco, and National Car Rental. Not to mention on albums by U2, The Beatles, and Frank Sinatra, as well as in New York City transit signs, Sesame Street words and its letters that help youngsters learn to read. Oh, and by the way, your local fallout shelter.

Designers love it, hate it, rebel against it, return to it again and again.

Watch Helvetica and see why.

 

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