Sunday, January 20, 2008
Helvetica's Neutrality + Polarization
Upon watching Helvetica (the movie), directed by Gary Hustwit, several things emerge. There are many anecdotes about the typeface, its forging and its emergence into the mainstream. But most designers and typographers (should) already know its story.
What this movie really establishes is a broadening respect for the design industry. Most stories about viewing this movie go a little like this: "Well, when my designer-friend told me there was a movie about a font, I laughed. I mean, who would want to see a movie about a font?! But I agreed to go and it was SO interesting. I had no idea how much fonts matter. And the interviews were great!"
It's TRUE. This movie says something important about a group of caring individuals. It shows the world that the nuances and thoughts behind design movements, design decisions and executions are deep and studied, both intellectually and emotionally. There is a common thread among many of the designers interviewed. There is a desire to challenge the world conceptually and stylistically and to challenge themselves personally. And to give every project a sense of relevant beauty.
Another aspect that rings loud and clear is the necessity of designers to state their philosophical leanings. Massimo Vignelli, opinionated as ever, refers to psychedelia as a time for "whatever" and post-modernism as a disease. Eric Spiekermann goes on a tirade about the weaknesses of Helvetica. But when asked about why it is so popular, there is a sense of shrugging. He doesn't seem to see why anyone would choose it. Those who do are, well, lazy. All they are doing is breathing, because "Helvetica is like air."
When it comes to interviewing people who deal purely with designing type, Hustwit showcases some really passionate individuals. Mike Parker radiates as he describes the arrival of Helvetica in America as a "landslide waiting to go down the mountain, and away it went." Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones bubble with type-nerd enthusiasm as they unfurl a broadsheet of insider terminology. Above all, though, are the anecdotes and analysis from Matthew Carter. Not only does he emerge as a magnanimous and knowledgeable individual, but he manifests that rare quality of well-aged confidence mixed with an unflagging enthusiasm for what is to come. Many people his age become cynical and close-minded, but he remains aware and supportive of the design-youth.
Hustwit's most buoyant interviews are those of Michael Beirut, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister. The design industry is endlessly benefited by their positive attitudes.
Ultimately, Helvetica (the movie) is a very emotional experience. And perhaps, that is a further testament to the importance of the typeface's design. As much as it strives for neutrality, never has a typeface had such a mammoth impact on people's lives and polarizing effect on the perceptions of designers.
A big thank you must go out to Gary Hustwit for making such a beautiful piece, for raising awareness about typography and for furthering the design industry and the role of designers within it.