Charles Petzold

"Helvetica" (the movie)

September 12, 2007
New York, N.Y.

The ubiquitous Helvetica typeface is 50 years old this year and currently being celebrated in the documentary Helvetica by Gary Hustwit. We caught it this evening at the IFC Center on 6th Avenue (you know — the site of the old Waverly Theater). I enjoyed the movie immensely. It's even laugh-out-loud funny in spots, and I think anyone with even the slightest interest in typography and graphics design will get a kick out of it. (Check the web site for details.)

Helvetica was invented at the Haas type foundry in Switzerland. The original name was Neue Haas Grotesk but that was changed to a word derived from the Latin name for Switzerland. Over the 1960s, Helvetica took the advertising world by storm and was instrumental in modernizing corporate logos and advertisements. It eventually became the default font for much corporate lettering and government signage. Helvetica the documentary takes us on little tours of major cities around the world, showing us how the typeface has blanketed our modern visual world.

Helvetica is mostly a series of interviews with type designers and graphics artists — those who love the perfection and cleanliness of Helvetica, and those who hate its efficient slick fascist appeal — as they talk of the role of Helvetica and other fonts in their work and their worlds. Those who praise Helvetica appreciate how its neutrality gives it an open interpretation and lets it conform to its subject. Those who dislike Helvetica do so also because of its neutrality that translates into a sterility unsuitable for conveying any meaning. Through the roughly chronological order to the interviews, we witness the reaction against Helvetica in grunge typography, and then the reaction against grunge in a re-appreciation of Helvetica's populist appeal.

What I found most fascinating was the humor and expressive passion of the designers and artists that ultimately seemed completely at odds with the visual saturation of an ever blander Helvetica world. The relentlessness of Helvetica then persists even when you leave the movie and view all the signage of the modern world with new eyes.