‘Helvetica’ Font Celebrated in Documentary Film

If someone started talking about ascenders, ligatures, serifs and spines, many people would have no idea how to react. The language is associated with typography: in layman’s terms, font design.

People digest a lot of text in an average day and hardly ever notice the font or typeface in which the text is written. And that’s the way some type designers think it should be.

The 2007 documentary “Helvetica” attempts to make people think about design and how information is conveyed in its exploration of one the most common fonts, Helvetica.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the ubiquitous font. Logos, advertising, street signs, computers—the font follows people everywhere, and they hardly notice it just as they are not really supposed to.

The film follows the typeface from its creation in 1957 when it began as Neue Haas Grotesk, a new sans-serif font by Max Miedinger. When the font left its birthplace of Switzerland for English-speaking countries, its name was changed to something a little less grotesque: Helvetica, a derivation of the Latin name for Switzerland Confederation Helvetica.

Although the film focuses mostly on Helvetica, it also explores the typography or type designing profession and gives and interesting look into the minds of the people that provide the world with fonts.

Typeface designer Matthew Carter, who created the fonts Tahoma, Verdana and Georgia as well as many others, is interviewed in the film.

“I rather hope they’re not aware of my presence,” Carter said in a DVD extra,” If someone who’s reading a daily newspaper or magazine becomes conscious of the type, it’s generally because there’s a problem.”

But to a surprising number of people like Carter, typefaces are very important. There are even websites like ILoveTypography.com (“devoted to fonts, typefaces and all things typographical”) and an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York celebrating the anniversary of Helvetica.

Although this way of looking at type is usually limited to designers who either make or use typefaces, the movie and the exhibit show people an entirely new way way of looking at the world around them, or at least the text within it.

“Helvetica” is not focused only towards an audience of likeminded, design-oriented individuals, or even toward those who particularly like Helvetica. It includes many different perspectives toward the font, including a few designers who utterly despise the font, describing it as overrated and overused. The film gives an interesting look at the font and at the ancient profession which produced in a visually and intellectually engaging way.

Whether or not it is overtly noticeable, typography is everywhere—from street signs to cereal boxes. It’s unavoidable, and it affects everyone. Most people will probably not stop to look at what font a block of text is before they read it, even after watching the movie, but it would be a shame to completely ignore such an intrinsic part of modern life.

The film is available on DVD at HelveticaFilm.com or can be rented at Videoscope on El Camino.