Must-See Mondays: Helvetica


I’m sure by now all my fellow design nerds have seen the feature length, 2007 documentary “Helvetica.” Besides the awesome interviews with “celebrity designers” (OK maybe they’re only celebrities in the graphic design world) and theorists, I promise that even the most jaded designer will be stunned by the fact that Helvetica is literally used EVERYWHERE. Yes, EVERYWHERE. Did I know this? Pretty much. I knew it was used by Massimo Vignelli when designing the identity and signage for the New York City Subway System and the like, but geez…the opening segment alone will remind you that Helvetica is no longer just “classic” or “standard.” It’s ubiquitous, pervasive (almost viral), and well, like I said…EVERYWHERE. It’s so all over the place that I almost forget I’m looking at Helvetica sometimes. Which is actually why some designers think it’s so great.

Of course, for those who know the aesthetic of the various designers included in the documentary, you’ll probably react as expected to each of the interviews shown (based on your already formed opinions of said aesthetics). For me it went kind of like this…I wished I worked for Michael Bierut, would love to listen to records with Stefan Sagmeister and hear his thoughts on music and design, realized I dislike David Carson a little less than I thought, and wanted to give Tobias Frere-Jones a big kiss (total font crush!). The most interesting part of the film for me was definitely the historical information about the creation of fontβ€”the details and the human interest side of the story. Listening to Hermann Zapf…totally awesome. Seeing Matthew Carter work and talk about the alphabet was also pretty exciting (wow, I AM a nerd!) and very impressive. Eric Spiekermann gave me a chuckle. And it was cool to learn more about firms like Experimental Jetset and Norm, which I hate to admit I hadn’t heard of (see I do have a life outside design!).

To sum up…if you like typography, I think you’ll enjoy this one, no matter what your thoughts on Helvetica itself. Honestly, I rarely use the font. When I’m going san-serif, I’m more of a Futura, Century Gothic, Frutiger or Univers gal (depending on the occasion). I always shied away from Helvetica on principal, thinking it was just so familiar or overused, but this movie had me considering Helvetica and it’s strength and weaknesses more deeply. Perhaps it is the near-perfect, universal font with unprecedented legibility and without excess thematic baggage, that many think it to be. It may not be tomorrow, or next week, but maybe someday I’ll find the right moment or job and give Helvetica another chance. Thanks for the encouragement design celebrities! I think…

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