Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary about the midcentury sans-serif typeface Helvetica seems at first blush like it might turn out to be of parochial interest only. We expect documentaries to tackle weighty and substantial topics like labor disputes (Harlan County, USA), genocide (Night and Fog), corporate villainy (Roger & Me), and environmental degradation (An Inconvenient Truth), or at least expansive ones, like a day in the life of a city (Man With a Movie Camera), or emotionally moving ones, like the everyday struggles of an Inuit family in the arctic (Nanook of the North). The range of topics available to non-fiction filmmakers is virtually infinite, and yet to find an audience and a topic worth spending large sums of money and long stretches of time on, filmmakers need to seize on matters of clear public interest, whether because of their storytelling appeal or their importance to civic culture. The triumph of Hustwit's film is that, surprisingly, Helvetica rises to this level so effectively and convinces even the design-naïve viewer of the huge significance of typography--a significance that increases as ordinary people become more involved in the production of visual media.

Helvetica manages to accomplish this in several ways. The standard interview format of talking heads and cut-aways sells the message of a perfect, neutral, modern typeface, the culmination of a stylistic progression toward simpler and more universal forms which in the 1960s became the visual identity of numerous corporations. Among the corporate identities surveyed in the film, we see the names American Airlines, Crate & Barrel, National (rental cars), Toyota, Target, and Panasonic, all spelled in Helvetica. We see Helvetica in ads for Coca-Cola, on the billboards in Times Square, on office buildings and taxis and subway cars. It always looks at once official and unremarkable. One of the voices in the film compares Helvetica to air: it's everywhere you go, essential and easy to ignore.

The casting of designers and writers who appear in the film's interviews gives special focus to those who speak with extraordinary passion and articulacy. The profession of designer would appear to demand flawless presentation in all aspects of a person's outward appearance, and the talking heads in this movie, like Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Michael Beirut, Rick Poynor, Stefan Sagmeister, and Massimo Vignelli, speak and look the role. The sense of their investment in surface appearance, in its significance for the ways meaning is communicated, helps sell the film's message. These bright, genial, careful design folk all seem quite convinced that type matters a ton, and one cannot help but find sympathy with well-spoken figures who look and sound so appealing. (That some of them despise Helvetica for being inexpressive or for being an excessively corporate style adds interest and demands even more careful consideration of the film's topic.)

But what makes the film especially effective is its presentation of type within ecological contexts, i.e., in the places one finds it in real life: on signage, on consumer products, on apparel, on posters, on vehicles, especially in the street, where many of Helvetica's best shots were taken.

The film's meaning is anchored by the words spoken in its interviews, but the argument is really made in the images seen in cut-away shots accompanying voice-over sound. The principal effect here is noticing: in particular, noticing details of the lived environment that had previously eluded notice. If one function of art is to train our perception of the world and make us more sensitive to its textures and forms, watching Helvetica is a kind therapy for living a more attentive life.

I often wonder why creative people who are interested in exploring non-fictional topics choose to make documentaries rather than to write articles or books. My prejudice as a verbal sort of person is for writing over moving images. One can make a better argument in writing; writing demands more ideas and words and tends to be more rigorous intellectually. If this were not so, perhaps academics would typically make documentaries instead of writing prose. I think I generally learn more from reading a good New Yorker article than I do from watching a documentary (for instance, check out this one from the current issue about itching), and the interview style that dominates documentaries today often subsumes the voice of the filmmakers under the voices of the subjects. Of course there are brilliant documentary artists like Errol Morris who do things only movies can do, and motion pictures tell us an infinite number of things that can never be described in words. I prefer documentaries that don't rely too much on their talking heads, that exploit the power of audiovisual representation.

Helvetica succeeds by using the techniques of visual media to its advantage. I could as easily learn about designer's attitudes toward Helvetica from reading a good article about the typeface. But the movie really does exploit the moving image; it uses visual forms to reveal the ubiquity of Helvetica, and to encourage the audience to appreciate this ubiquity. In the early minutes of the film, we see many dense images of public spaces in which our task as viewers is to find the important detail.

When we watch ordinary films and TV, we tend to know where in the frame to look: at eyes, at narratively significant details. There are habits of viewing that develop over a lifetime of spectatorship. In many segments of this film, rather than human forms or narrative details, the eye scans for letters and numbers, and when it finds them the mind must judge if they're Helvetica or not. In the shot of the American Apparel billboard, we need to realize that we're being asked to consider the font in which "American Apparel" is printed rather than the model's figure, her strange attire, or the bubble on her face. Each shot's duration functions like a ticking clock, encouraging us to get the right answer before time is up. This technique forces the viewer to become sensitive to details of the environment that were not previously a focus of attention. Indeed part of the film's point is that Helvetica blends in so well, it is such a default kind of typeface, made not to be noticed.

The film also gets tricky on us. We see images with more than one typeface and have to determine which is the type we are looking for.

Or we are invited to compare not only one font with another, but designed type with handwritten (or spray-painted) letters.

Then occasionally there is a shot without any Helvetica! And we mark its absence and its difference from other typefaces.

In some cut-aways we see images without Helvetica and wonder why we are looking at this shot at all, only to have the type revealed somehow. In one shot, customers entering a Crate & Barrel store obscure the signage in the door and only after some of them have passed do we see the type.

In my favorite shot in the film, we see an overhead view of a New York street shot from several stories above. Nothing in the frame seems to include any easily discernible type (there is the UPS truck but its text is barely legible). And then, a city bus enters the frame from the right, and as it does we see that the bus's number painted on the roof is in Helvetica.

This film not only asks us to notice the number painted on top of a city bus, a view we don't typically see, but also to appreciate the choice of Helvetica as the typeface. And the point of this is not merely to serve as a device along the way of making some other point; it is to appreciate the form of Helvetica. I smiled when I saw that.

It doesn't surprise me that the film was received well by designers. They're an easy sell for a documentary inviting the rest of the world to appreciate their often obscure craft. But Helvetica also has the potential to help the rest of us negotiate a new world in which everyday people, i.e., non-designers, increasingly make choices about design which were previously unavailable to us. Take this blog for example. When I set it up I chose a theme, fonts (including size and weight), colors, layout, widgets, etc. Yes, many people choose to leave the default setting intact, but this is also a choice. Making choices like these doesn't make us designers. Few non-professionals are inventing new fonts or anything remotely like that (there are tools for this if you want to give it a try, as this NYT article describes.). But DIY tools like blog templates (and myspace pages, which the film references, and so many other graphic components of web 2.0 apps) are still opportunities for creative expression; they function to fashion identity and project it outward into the world. Learning a bit about how designers think, where they pay attention and how they judge, what criteria they apply and when and why, can help us figure all this out.


Since seeing Helvetica, I can't stop noticing type. The film has made me see the world differently, to notice things I hadn't cared about before, to put myself in the mind of the person who chose the font and wonder why they picked the one they did. I see Arial, a clone of Helvetica (which you are reading right now), and feel disappointed. I see Helvetica and get excited, even just by my ability to recognize it.

I took this photo in an airport the other day. There is more going on in it than the type, but when I look at it that's mainly what I see. I would like to think it could pass for a still from the movie.



Anonymous said...

Glad you got a chance to see Helvetica. It's one of the best documentaries I've seen in a while precisely for the reasons that you describe. And, yes, I was infinitely more aware of typefaces after seeing the movie...

Anonymous said...

I just screened it in Intro to Comm; watching it the 2nd time made me appreciate how well it illustrates the movement from corporate modernism to high modernism to postmodernism in the graphic arts, which is sometimes hard to illustrate with just one example for students. It also plays very nicely with Lewis Mumford's ideas about the dichotomies of machine age ideology. Although I think I liked it more than my students did.