Helvetica Movie Review

A documentary about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture.

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit explores the proliferation of the typeface and how it affects our lives. The documentary takes you through the history of the font, who developed it, why it was created, how it became so popular so quickly and you see some startling contrasts in advertising in the 50s using curly handwriting fonts to the crisp designs of the 60s using the modern Helvetica. Each designer have different work styles, and different opinions about Helvetica, but they share one trait in common: they not only pay attention to details, but they are passionate about them. This film was a good sort of introduction to the world of typography for someone like me who understands a little bit about what makes fonts differ from one another.

This quote from type designer Mike Parker (typographer and type designer) helped me understand it a little better:

“what it’s all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape, the figure-ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters, with the black, if you like, with the inked surface…I mean you can’t imagine anything moving; it is so firm. It not a letter that bent to shape; it’s a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space. It’s… oh, it’s brilliant when it’s done well.”

The purpose of modernism was to be more functional rather than form. In context of Helvetica, it functions to present information as clearly as possible and “shouldn’t be expressive”. On the other hand, post modernism is a recent response to the modernism movement. It rejects any kind of restraints and embraces a freer flowing and form in typography and illustration.

Michael Beirut had interview in this film and the way he explained Helvetica was humorous and awesome at the same time. You can tell that Beirut is a passionate modernist who is an advocate for Helvetica. He claims that Helvetica is “scrapping the crud off of filthy old things” and “restoring them to shining beauty”. His ability to put complicated materials together to create a very sophisticated yet simplistic design. His designs are very influential in today’s world and his design firm AGIA in New York is very successful.

Post modernism is a switch back to a more “expressive” style of typography where artists such as David Carson become very creative with their work. The text in Carson’s work often challenges the fundamental criteria for legibility by the exploration of reverse reading, justification, columns jammed together with no gutter and the erratic letter spacing across images, arranged in expressive rather than normative sequences.


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