Lee Heidel

"Helvetica" The Movie

Last night, I watched the film Helvetica. Yes, a movie about a typeface. And it was wonderful.

The film examined the creation of the now-ubiquitous font, beginning with how it was conceived, sold and its sudden rise to prominence. Design examples focused mostly on signage and logos. But the sheer quantity of examples was mind-blowing. Towards the end of the film, there is a still image of an urban street-scape, filled with dozens of signs, and all but two titles were spelled out in Helvetica.

It's the authoritative framework of the city. From traffic signs to ordinance postings and bank logos, Helvetica is seen by some as being oppressive. However, it's also a clean face that speaks to legibility, order and control in a very positive sense. It's used extensively on everything from Sesame Street to IRS forms. You cannot escape its reach.

The discussion between designers on the humanity of the typeface, its lack of expression or over-use is a fascinating one. The mass-adoption of Helvetica is seen as a direct cause of the hand-lettering explosion of psychedelia and the grunge fonts of the 90s. But now, design has come back to the rationalism of Helvetica and it is being used now more than ever before due to the licensing agreements that put Helvetica on every personal computer.

I highly recommend this film to anyone remotely interested in the design process and the careful consideration behind mass imagery. Helvetica's birth as the font of capitalism (or socialism depending on the interviewee) has evolved into a versatile typeface that can be just as subversive as authoritative.

Full disclaimer: Heideldesign is (still) a Helvetica devotee. In fact, you're looking at it right now!