Yesterday I returned to Osaka from Tokyo on the Shinkansen. As usual I grabbed a delicious ekiben and a bottle of tea before I rushed on the train and settled down for a relaxing 2.5 hour, high-speed trip back home through the Japanese countryside. Somewhere after Yokohama I unwrapped the bento, pulled out my MacBook Pro, inserted the DVD and kicked back to watch a documentary film called Helvetica by Gary Hustwit, a film I had been waiting to see for a very long time. I know what you are thinking—a film about a typeface? Are you mad? Yes, the idea of creating (let alone watching) a film about a single typeface seems quite insane, about as insane I guess as a film about a guy doing a slide presentation on climate change. (Helvetica was created by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann in the late '50s in Münchenstein, Switzerland. The original name was Neue Haas Grotesk. The name was later changed to Helvetica—Helvetia is the Latin name for Switzerland).
I snapped this pic out the side window while watching the film Helvetica.
A wonderful documentary
Maybe I am just a geek, but this documentary blew me away; 80 minutes never went by so fast. Luckily, the DVD contains 95 minutes of bonus interviews. The DVD—which contains English and German subtitles—is an incredible bargain at around $20 on Amazon (get institutional pricing here; still worth it). Stop what you're doing right now and order this film. I found it entertaining, educational—and don't ask me why—but inspirational as well. My favorite bits were the interviews with Eric Spiekermann, especially in the extras section where he lambastes Arial (Hey, what's wrong with Arial?) and rips Microsoft a new one. Dr. Spiekermann remember was the designer who hated the World Cup logo as well. The film is for designers and non-designers alike, though it is surely not for everyone. For those comfortable with media that won't even devote three minutes exploring an important single news story, an 80-minute film about a typeface might not be very interesting. But for those deeply interested in the world around them, even if they are not designers, this film should be quite stimulating. Anyone who is interested in learning more about typography and graphic design and how they influence our lives and cultures will not want to miss this one. Here are some short clips below to give you a feel (though they do not do the film justice).
The famous designers in the film were a mix of those who like Helvetica and those who really hate it. After you watch the film you'll know why. Me? I tend to like Helvetica. I understand why some hate its use, but I find since it is a bit boring, yet somehow beautiful in its perfection, it works well inside images that are quite busy or otherwise dynamic. After the film you will surely have a greater appreciation for typography and the power of graphic design. I am not an expert by any means, but I absolutely love type. (Actually, I have a bit of a Gill Sans fetish that I am trying to break.) When you consider how powerful type is in setting mood and even in subtle manipulation (such as in advertising), everyone should have a course in at least the basics—perhaps a kind of typography for non-typographers class should be added to the curriculum.
• How to spot Arial
• Helvetica merchandise
• Helvetica blog