Sunday, April 27, 2008
Several years ago, I stopped reading USA Today (the prose equivalent to quitting smoking) when the publication changed its typeface. I don't recall which font was employed previously, but it began using what is reportedly a bastardized version of Gulliver. I hadn't the wherewithal to explain precisely what displeased me; all I know is reading the newspaper's equivalent to news hurt my eyes. Something left me feeling anxious and unsettled, and I knew it wasn't the content.
Helvetica, the best movie ever made about a font, examines the near-subliminal importance of typeface in our culture -- specifically the titular sans-serif, which the documentary showcases its ubiquity from NYC subway signs to advertisements for Coca-Cola. The director, Gary Hustwit, deftly traces its fifty-year-old origins, interviewing a wide range of typesetters and designers who either swear by Helvetica as holy writ or see it as the nefarious face of Western corporatism.
This conflict informs the most stimulating passages of the movie: in one of them, an overzealous interviewee hilariously contrasts the garish magazine ads from the 1950s, with their cursives and exclamation points, to the straightforward simplicity of Helvetica ("Coke. It's the real thing," he barks, pounding his finger on a table. "Any questions? No!"); in another, ex-hippie-turned-designer Paula Scher voices misgivings about how political and corporate America have used this "neutral" font (which derives from the Latin word for Switzerland) to humanize themselves, going so far as to accuse the font (only half-facetiously) of causing the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
There is a world of difference between the kind of typeface used for newspaper print and the kind needed for instant-message advertising, and Helvetica would have benefited from drawing more of these distinctions. At times Hustwit gives the impression that the font is the same in every form, when in actuality Helvetica's imposing all-caps (e.g., Target's logo) produces a different aesthetic reaction than its cuddlier lower-case lettering and numbers.
Still, these are minor flaws in a film that has already become a kind of Citizen Kane for graphic designers, one that at its best invites you to see the world with new eyes. I must confess to feeling an affinity for the "resistance" against Helvetica, as when one interviewee, a magazine editor, reveals that he once published an article in an unreadable Dingbat font. ("It wasn't very well written anyway," he says.) Helvetica the movie shows Helvetica the typeface at its most appealing less as the spokesfont for American Airlines than when it's been unwittingly co-opted and subverted: "Fuck Yoga," one ad in the film reads; "For crystal meth, call Angel," suggests another.