There’s more to your average typeface than meets the eye. At least that’s the message of Helvetica, a fairly interesting documentary about the most commercialized typeface in current society. Created approximately fifty years ago in Switzerland, the Helvetica typeface can be encountered numerous times in a single day: from NYC subway systems to IRS tax forms to the opening credits of The Office.
Directed by Gary Hustwit (whose previous credits include producing documentaries about indie rock bands Ted Leo & The Pharmacists and Death Cab for Cutie), this talking head and talking word documentary assembles a variety of figures from within the industry, many of whom share very different views on the subject. Some celebrate the majesty of its design and the familiarity of its ubiquity, while others express concern about globalization and lament the loss of individuality.
Helvetica purports to be about a global phenomenon but Hustwit only seems interested in displaying people or visual illustrations grounded in Europe or USA. While it’s fun to visit Helvetica’s birthplace in Münchenstein, Switzerland, it might have been more interesting to see how the typeface has fared in regions of Africa or the Eastern world.
Ultimately little more than a curiosity piece, there is a certain fascination present in seeing some of the faces behind the Microsoft Office fonts we all know and love. As these typographers and graphic designers gleefully recount their experiences with or thoughts about Helvetica, it’s hard not to smile at this attestation of the Warholian creed: thanks to the medium of film, anyone can experience a bit of fame.
Opens September 12 at IFC Center