Saturday, April 5, 2008


I just watched the documentary film Helvetica and highly recommend it.

Yes, it's a documentary about a font (which, let's face it, you could have expected of me). But it's also about visual design and art culture history more generally. And I guarantee it will make you look at type differently--type on your computer, type in a TV ad, type on the spines of your books as you walk by your bookshelf. You'll start seeing things as if for the first time, which is one of my favorite hallmarks of a good film.

I've always turned my nose up at Helvetica as the most defaulty of default fonts. The film convinced me that it can and indeed should be considered in all thoughtful visual design, as it has been historically. I'm not sure that its argument that you could do absolutely anything with Helvetica was quite as successful. It's not just that the display version carries with it the baggage of the 1960s modernist aesthetic, I think; it's that I don't buy the idea that a font can be completely devoid of all inherent expression. Can it?

I also liked the final question posed--whether there is something about Helvetica that makes it universally, unrelativistically a good font: whether it's reached some sort of Platonic ideal of sans serifness. I think the answer is no (the lowercase a and g are too interesting for that). But it means something that the question is asked in the first place.

There were some shots of fonts which the film suggested were Helvetica but which I thought weren't. Anyone else notice them too? Or am I wrong?


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Just realized that this movie is in my "instant" Netflix queue. So I'm going to try to watch it this week. I'm (strange to say) excited about it :)