If you can make a whole movie about a typeface, I guess it’s true that you can make a movie about anything. Helvetica is the ubiquitous typeface of the modern age. It’s everywhere, and believe me, after you’ve seen this movie, you’ll see it everywhere. It was designed in 1957 in Switzerland (Helvetia, as I learned as a young philatelist, is the name on Swiss stamps) as a reaction to the more flowery scripts in use at the time. It is no-nonsense, san-serif, and whether skinny or bold it is easily readable. It also happens to be proprietary. I looked into buying it, and was horrified to see it would cost between $600 and $900, depending on how many dingbats you wanted. I suspect it’s available somewhere online for free—practically everything is—but I don’t have the time to search for it. So, I won’t be able to publish this review in Helvetica, as I had intended. But all the other reviews on the old website were in Ariel, which is indistinguishable from Helvetica to anyone but a type designer. Helvetica/Ariel look the same in upper case. Where it gets mysterious to me is when you get into the lower case letters. What’s the deal with that a? The circle part is sort of squashed, saggy on the top. It looks like a kidney bean. How does that fit with the symmetry, the sharp edges and geometric curves of all the caps? The g, as well, looks sort of hinky, when you consider it with all the others. Something about that hook at the bottom just seems to me to be up to no good. The f and the r and the j seem a little subversive, too.
These are the sorts of questions the people in this movie think about, things that you and I would be unlikely to notice. I was fascinated by typefaces for a while, a few years ago, and lamented the loss of the wonkier ones from the 19th century, which have to be seen to be believed. There are literally thousands of typefaces—millions, if you count the ones cobbled up for basically one-time use—and it is true that what you think about what you read is influenced by how that reading matter is presented. You wouldn’t have felt the same about a San Francisco Family Dog concert poster from the ‘60s, for instance, if it had been simply a typed list of bands, instead of a barely-comprehensible explosion of odd shapes and psychedelic colors. Those old posters are collectible now. A typed list wouldn’t have been.
The experts and artists interviewed here seem largely satisfied to let Helvetica remain the unchallenged king of the hill. It has obvious advantages. But there are some dissenting voices, reacting to the rather fascistic (to my way of thinking) pronouncements of some of the Old “Modern” Guard, who rail against Post-Modernism. I tend to side with the rebels. Let a thousand typefaces bloom, say I. Keep Helvetica for street signs and cold corporate logos. Elsewhere … experiment!