Helvetica: The Movie

By Deane Barker on December 2, 2008

Helvetica (the movie) is a full-length documentary about a font. Seriously. Better yet, it’s really interesting.

Helvetica (the font) is as standard a typeface as you’re ever going to find. It’s so standard you don’t even think about it. In fact, this is an actual conversation that took place when I was trying to explain to my wife what it was about.

Annie: So, this is a movie about letters?

Me: It’s about the Helvetica font.

Annie: What’s that?

Me [pointing to her shirt]: See the words “Polo Sports” there? That’s Helvetica.

Annie: So, you mean, just, like, regular letters? Like, normal text?

And there you have it. To Annie, Helvetica is nothing more than “regular letters,” it’s become that ingrained in all of us. On a couple occasions, the movie says, “it’s nothing, it’s like air.”

There’s no narrator — the movie is just a collection of interviews with designers, at first about Helvetica, then it drifts into design in general (there was a Helvetica backlash, sometime in the 70s, apparently). Interspersed throughout are hundreds of video snippets of Helvetica in action. It’s on all our tax forms. It’s used on the side of the Space Shuttle.

There’s a neat scene where you get to visit the headquarters of Linotype, who own the rights to Helvetica now. One of their executives takes us into the basement archives and retrieves binder #24, which contains the original drawings of the font from the 1950s.

I also liked an interview with Matthew Carter, who has been a typeface designer for 51 years. he worked with Microsoft of Verdana and Georgia (more on that). He explains the parts of a font — the ascenders, the descenders, the x-height, etc. — and how he designs one. He starts with a lower-case “h,” then a lower-case “p,” then an “o,” and he explains the significance of each one. It’s compelling.

It’s a great film. At 80 minutes, it’s not too long, and if you’re a designer, it’s kind of a must-see. I loved it.

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  1. Having been in print design and production years before the Internet moved it to the backseat, my love of letterforms has never faded (my company’s name is homage to that – General Glyphics). My daugther who is away at college first told me about this movie. At Texas A&M they had quite some promotion going on for the movie about a year ago. Although she is a wildlife and fisheries major, typography is a part of her through osmosis while living in our house. She took several of her dorm buddies. None of them had ever thought about typefaces. After watching the movie, all the kids with Windows computers were jealuous of the kids with Macs – Helvetica is a standard face on Mac, not Windows – mainly because the the vitriol that Erik Spiekermann spewed on Arial in the movie.

    What I loved in the movie most was Hermann Zapf’s (Palatino and Optima, among many others) opinion of Helvetica. After all the profuse praise of Helvetica he comes up and says – “I always saw too much of the 19th century in Helvetica” – and he is old enough to know.

    On the DVD there are tons of extended interviews with Zapf, Carter and others – if you have any interest in typefaces, you will find them very interesting.

    BTW – for those viewing this blog on Windows, the designer of this blog has specified Helvetica Neue as the first choice font family in the CSS.

  2. One thing that bothered me a little, is that when they were flashing images of Helvetica in use on the streets, etc., they showed some Bloomindale’s signage with the Bloomingdale’s logo… which is not set in Helvetica. Just a little annoyance to a graphic designer… or, maybe there’s a version I’m not aware of floating out there!

    Otherwise, it’s a wonderful documentary and I’m enjoying it immensely!

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