Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2007) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives. The film is an exploration of urban spaces in major cities and the type that inhabits them, and a fluid discussion with renowned designers about their work, the creative process, and the choices and aesthetics behind their use of type.
Helvetica encompasses the worlds of design, advertising, psychology, and communication, and invites us to take a second look at the thousands of words we see every day. The film was shot in high-definition on location in the United States, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium.
Interviewees in Helvetica include some of the most illustrious and innovative names in the design world, including Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Bierut, David Carson, Paula Scher, Jonathan Hoefler, Tobias Frere-Jones, Experimental Jetset, Michael C. Place, Norm, Alfred Hoffmann, Mike Parker, Bruno Steinert, Otmar Hoefer, Leslie Savan, Rick Poynor, and Lars Müller.
Helvetica had its World Premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2007. The film subsequently toured film festivals, special events, and art house cinemas worldwide, playing in over 300 cities in 40 countries. It received its television premiere on BBC1 in November 2007, and will be broadcast on PBS as part of the Emmy award-winning series Independent Lens in fall 2008. The film was nominated for a 2008 Independent Spirit Award in the “Truer Than Fiction” category, and was shortlisted for the Design Museum London’s “Designs of the Year” Award. An excerpt of the film was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Helvetica was developed by Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland. In the late 1950s, the European design world saw a revival of older sans-serif typefaces such as the German face Akzidenz Grotesk. Haas’ director Hoffmann commissioned Miedinger, a former employee and freelance designer, to draw an updated sans-serif typeface to add to their line. The result was called Neue Haas Grotesk, but its name was later changed to Helvetica, derived from Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland, when Haas’ German parent companies Stempel and Linotype began marketing the font internationally in 1961.
Introduced amidst a wave of popularity of Swiss design, and fueled by advertising agencies selling this new design style to their clients, Helvetica quickly appeared in corporate logos, signage for transportation systems, fine art prints, and myriad other uses worldwide. Inclusion of the font in home computer systems such as the Apple Macintosh in 1984 only further cemented its ubiquity.
Why make a film about a typeface, let alone a feature documentary film about Helvetica? Because it’s all around us. You’ve probably already seen Helvetica several times today. It might have told you which subway platform you needed, or tried to sell you investment services or vacation getaways in the ads in your morning paper. Maybe it gave you the latest headlines on television, or let you know whether to ‘push’ or ‘pull’ to open your office door.
Since millions of people see and use Helvetica every day, I guess I just wondered, “Why?” How did a typeface drawn by a little-known Swiss designer in 1957 become one of the most popular ways for us to communicate our words fifty years later? And what are the repercussions of that popularity, has it resulted in the globalization of our visual culture? Does a storefront today look the same in Minneapolis, Melbourne and Munich? How do we interact with type on a daily basis? And what about the effects of technology on type and graphic design, and the ways we consume it? Most of us use computers and digital fonts every day, so are we all graphic designers now, in a sense?
So let’s just say I had a few questions, and I thought making a film would be a good way to answer them. I also thought that looking at Helvetica’s “career” would be a good structure to look at the past 50 years of graphic design, and a starting point for some interesting conversations in the film. And hopefully the film could make people who aren’t in the design trade think twice about the words that surround them, and the effect that typefaces have on the way we process those words.
I definitely did not want to make a film that had 75 people all saying one quick sound bite about Helvetica, all chopped together. Since there really haven’t been any great documentaries made about graphic design and type, I wanted to try to focus on the interviewees in the film as much as the subject matter. People like Wim Crouwel, Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf, Matthew Carter… these are incredibly talented, knowledgeable, humble people, who each deserve an extensive documentary about their careers. And there are so many younger designers doing amazing work today as well, work that hasn’t been celebrated in documentary form yet. So I hope that in this film you’ll be able to get to know some of these people a little, see some of their work, and then hear their thoughts on type, and, of course, Helvetica.
-Gary Hustwit, New York, July 2006
About the Director
Gary Hustwit is an independent filmmaker based in New York and London. He has produced six feature documentaries, including I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the award-winning film about the band Wilco; Moog, the documentary about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog; and Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, a tour film about the band Death Cab for Cutie. Hustwit worked with punk label SST Records in the late-1980s, ran the independent book publishing house Incommunicado Press during the 1990s, was Vice President of the media website Salon.com in 2000, and started the indie DVD label Plexifilm in 2001.
Hustwit made his directorial debut with Helvetica, which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2007, and has since screened in over 200 cities worldwide. It had its television premiere in the UK on BBC1, and will be broadcast in the United States on PBS in January 2009. Hustwit was nominated for the 2008 Independent Spirit “Truer Than Fiction” Award for Helvetica.