4 Stars Movies

Purity, Ubiquity & Legibility: Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica

Helvetica (the documentary film) is not about Helvetica (the typeface), per se. Rather, it’s about the arts of graphic design and typography, their practitioners, and how they affect our daily lives.

Each luminary talking head has a different explanation of Helvetica’s appeal and longevity: neutrality, legibility, perfection (unlike more ornate typefaces, it is arguably comprised of the purest state of letterforms and can’t be improved), cleansing renewal (transitioning the tacky design of the 1950s to the bold and to-the-point 60s), problem-solving, soothingness, and just plain beauty. Its detractors see its ubiquity as self-perpetuating, due to designers’ momentum, habit, and bad taste. The enthusiasm of the enthusiasts is infectious, but the movie doesn’t mock them or hold them up as objects of curiosity culled from a nerdy subculture (as does, arguably, The King of Kong).

Thankfully for its subject matter of graphic design, director Gary Hustwit presents a highly polished work full of excellent typography, motion graphics, and editing. This blogger bemoans the tendency of many documentaries (like Spellbound and Wordplay) to use their non-fiction badge as a press pass to excuse grain, sloppy framing, and poor sound.

We’d be lost without Helvetica… literally

I am a mostly self-educated web designer, not properly trailed in the art and/or craft of graphic design. But I know enough to applaud the film for touching upon two of the biggest aspects of typography that every layperson should internalize:

  • Know your terms: Typefaces are designs. Fonts are particular implementations of those designs. There are multiple fonts based on the typeface Helvetica.
  • Arial is a poor Helvetica knock-off commissioned by Microsoft to side-step the expensive licensing fees. It is an abomination, a blight upon this planet earth, and should be summarily deleted from humanity’s hard drives. (q.v. The Scourge of Arial)

Finally, I must note a major disappointment: I rented Helvetica from Netflix, and the disc arrived emblazoned with a “Red Envelope Entertainment” label. Bizarrely, there were no signs of the extensive bonus features promised on the movie’s official website. Has Netflix begun releasing “not-so-special” editions of DVDs omitting the bonus features available on retail editions? I, long relying on Netflix to help keep my DVD shelves from groaning into a black hole of overconsumption, stamp my feet in frustration.

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