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.