Independent Lens: Helvetica

“Type is saying things to us all the time. Typefaces express a mood, an atmosphere, they give words a certain coloring.” Design Writer Rick Poyner here articulates a recurring notion in Helvetica, that typeface has effects. Far from new or unexpected, this notion serves as something like a chorus for the several verses of Gary Hustwit’s film, an abbreviated version of which airs 6 January as part of PBS’ Independent Lens programming.

The mood or atmosphere expressed by Helvetica, the film’s experts repeat, is sort of generic — in the sense that it is familiar and enduring, making readers feel comfortable, reassured, and, at least for a time, idealistic. This leads to another, more interesting point made by Helvetica, that the effects of typeface shift over time, accommodating and reflecting their historical contexts. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t exactly dig into these contexts — it brushes over eras as if the experiences they produced were homogenous. The 1950s, for instance, when Helvetica emerged (1957, to be precise), are here predictably characterized as conformist and static, a standard “American” reading of the time, without attention to those race, gender, or class disparities that made the period feel hectic, unhappy or dangerous. In answer to this kind of 1950s, Poyner says, “Some designers, many perhaps across the world, felt the need to rebuild to reconstruct, to make the world more open, to run more smoothly, be more democratic.” There was, he concludes, “a real sense of social responsibility among designers.”

And so, they appreciated the elegance of Helvetica. Typographer Massimo Vignelli proclaims, “I don’t think typeface has to be expressive at all,” in the sense that a typeface doesn’t have to seem to bark if it is spelling “dog.” Yet he does believe the lines, shapes, and spaces within type do have social and emotional functions. He says that typographers are engaged in a “fight against the ugliness.” Likening their struggle to that of a doctor, he continues, “Visual disease is what we have around and we try to do is to cure it somehow with design.” In this configuration, Helvetica does appear an effective solution: clean, neat, and ordered. “Neutral was a word that we loved,” smiles self-described modernist designer Wim Crouwel. The type “shouldn’t have a meaning in itself, the meaning is in the content of the text, not in the typeface.” This even though the “neutral” type bears its own meaning, as, say, “neutral.”

The film adopts its own affection for neutrality, a structure comprised of patterns and repetitions. The talking heads speak from their studios or offices, the segments are separated by montages — with synthy soundtrack — of billboards and logos, illustrating the many uses of Helvetica. The corporate names are instantly recognizable: Jeep, BMW, Target, Tupperware, Nestl√©, Verizon, Lufthansa, Energizer, and Oral-B. The Gap, The North Face, JC Penney, Fendi, and Staples. All these brand names are, the film points out, defined in large part by the “brand” of Helvetica. Explicitly entertainment industry uses of the typeface — jackass, The Office, Little Miss Sunshine, U2, Court TV, and TNT — underline the point that the type can be used to represent all sorts of “identities,” from fresh to conservative to

Here’s the vague rub of typeface, that the mood it expresses is not, in fact, fixed or secure, that it depends on contexts, not only in time and place but also in relation to other uses of the same typeface, by one or more companies. If Helvetica makes American Airlines seem stable over time, other changing logo fonts suggest a company is keeping up, maintaining a positive up-to-dateness. At some point, The Gap may have seemed new and trend-bucking. Now, as graphic designer Neville Brody observes, when you buy Gap clothes, you know that “You’re gonna fit in, you’re not gonna stand out.” Helvetica, he says, is a “mark of membership.”

According to this “law of diminishing returns,” Poyner says, Helvetica’s very familiarity became a problem over time. Michael Beirut describes the impulse to find other sorts of expression “ABH,” or Anything but Helvetica. “It seemed,” he says, “Like Helvetica had just been used so much, associated with so many big faceless things.”

Enter artist and designer Paula Sher, the only woman who speaks in the film. (The world of typefaces is dominated by white men, if this documentary’s selection of interviewees is any gauge.) She describes her efforts to fight back against Helvetica, her professional emergence during a period (late ’60s and early ’70s), as she perceived it as the “language of corporate culture,” as well as a typeface that reminded her of her mother’s edict to clean up her room. If that’s not enough, she saw it in political dimensions as well, a typeface connected with “the big corporations that were slathered in Helvetica,” as well as “sponsors of the Vietnam war.” When she notes too that the Iraq war has its own Helvetica associations, the interview comes to an end, the film moving on to white men who are endeavoring to “improve” on Helvetica.

Still, Scher’s work — letters that slip and slither and pounce, letters that look like untidy and exciting art — stands in contrast to Helvetica, whether updated or classic. In this way, it helps to alleviate the repetition that shapes Helvetica.

RATING 5 / 10