The typeface that defined high modernity and thrives today as something "at once populist and authoritarian," according to graphic designer Steven McCarthy, is getting its own cinematic biography. Helvetica, the film, will survey the panorama of “typography, graphic design and global visual culture” that has evolved since Max Miedinger unveiled the bedevilingly sleek Helvetica typeface fifty years ago.
New Yorkers and other city dwellers wallow in the Helvetica typeface; we encounter it many times daily without necessarily recognizing it. Like painted lane stripes and telephone booths, it has become native to the modern landscape. Consider the logos for American Apparel, Crate & Barrel, Target, and Microsoft. Look again at the signage of the NYC subway platforms and entrances.
The upcoming film includes interviews with graphic design stars who speculate on Helvetica’s runaway success and its double-edged social implications. Wim Crouwel calls it "the most neutral typeface," which makes it either perfect or inadequate for communication, depending on what you’re trying to sell or tell. British designer Neville Brody says, "The Helvetica is a club. It's a mark of membership. It's a badge. It says we're part of modern society, we share the same ideals." Sublimely bland, the typeface embodies Bruce Mau's definition of nirvana: "The secret ambition of design is to become invisible, to be taken up into the culture, absorbed into the background. The highest order of success in design is to achieve ubiquity, to become banal."
The feature-length Helvetica is produced and directed by Gary Hustwit, who is also known for creating I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the award-winning documentary film about the band Wilco. Helvetica will debut in March at an Austin, TX film festival, but will make its way to NYC later in the spring. Meanwhile, the website has trailers, stills, and clips, including this gem from Berlin-based graphicist Erik Spiekermann: "I'm obviously a typomaniac, which is an incurable if not mortal disease… Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or girls' bottoms, I get kicks out of looking at type.”
Fontshop: To Helvetica and Back (Helv isn’t always the right sans for the job)
Steven McBride: Helvetica, the Voice of Opposition (abstract)
Darren Wilson: Helvetica vs. Arial Quiz
Gothamist: MTA Hack: Make Your Own Sign!
New York Times: In Search of the Characters of New York