“Helvetica,” a feature-length documentary about that typeface, promises too much information. Luckily, the filmmaker Gary Hustwit — who was an executive producer of the mesmerizing “Moog,” about the analog synthesizer — has a knack for finding a universe within a narrow topic.
Overlong but fascinating, Mr. Hustwit’s documentary posits Helvetica — a sans-serif typeface developed in 1957 at the Haas Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland — as an emblem of the machine age, a harbinger of globalization and an ally of modern art’s impulse toward innovation, simplicity and abstraction. Its versatility is showcased in shots of storefronts, street signs, public transportation systems, government forms, advertisements and newspaper vending boxes.
The film’s provocative, lively interviews with graphic designers and theorists — including Massimo Vignelli, who created directional signs for the New York City subway system, and David Carson, author of “The End of Print” — assess Helvetica’s impact on human life and thought. Some praise it as a conceptual breakthrough; others blast it as a lowest-common-denominator typeface whose use both reflects and perpetuates conformity.
Whomever you end up siding with, you’re guaranteed to spend the next few days scanning the world for Helvetica like a child on a cross-country car trip playing I Spy.”
The New York Times
“When I started this project,” [Hustwit] says, “I couldn’t believe that a film like this didn’t exist already, because these people are gods and goddesses. What they do is more than just logos and corporate branding – they design the type that we read every day in newspapers and magazines, onscreen and on television. Fonts don’t just appear out of Microsoft Word: there are human beings and huge stories behind them.”