Thursday, August 27, 2009


Have you ever wondered where fonts come from, and what impact they have on the world around you? Have you ever wondered how the appearance of text is affecting your consumer decisions? I sure hadn't. Until I read about this documentary, I didn't know that I wanted to know. In the beginning, I tracked down Helvetica because the notion of a film about a font was so laughable. Admittedly, It still kind of is, but in the best of ways. What makes this little documentary so interesting is that it pursues a topic that has the capacity to be incredibly dull, but isn't.

The film is mainly composed of interviews interposed with shots of the street where examples of Helvetica usage are in prominent display. The result is discomfiting, because director Gary Hustwit quickly demonstrates how unobservant the average person is when it comes to such details. I had absolutely no idea what a monopoly this type-face has over advertising and public signs, and pretty much everything else. Even more interesting are the designers thoughts on what Helvetica expresses to them, and why exactly it is so prevalent. The various designers are all equally passionate about what they do, shedding an interesting light on their philosophy of design and how Helvetica fits into it.

Visually, the camera is often stationary in order to record the interviews. Once he steps outside the office buildings, Hustwit utilizes many extreme close-ups in order to take the letters themselves out of context, showing the art of the text itself. Some of these shots are quite lovely--from crumbling signs to shining store-front letters that reflect the moving clouds from the sky. Even the wider shots have a way of isolating the text, and drawing it out for closer inspection.

The interviewees also discuss the history and evolution of graphic design, and the kitschy, overwrought designs of the 1950's that are responsible for the heyday of Helvetica--the text that represents sleek, clean efficiency. The designers use this particular font as a lens to discuss the culture at large. The most seemingly unnoticeable and innocent of details is representative of the movements of society.

My sister and I have resolved that a sequel called Comic Sans should be created. Let's see what we can do to get that in the works. Perhaps it can air on MTV with interviews from the slew of pre-teens who use it as a primary mode of self-expression. Unless this butchery of the font-face has ceased. Let us hope that it has.

But I digress. Helvetica. Thought provoking and worth seeing, but you might have to spend some time looking.

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