Watching Helvetica, a Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit

Posted: January 14, 2010 in Corporate Visual Landscape, Films
Tags: , , , , ,

Contemporary society is greatly affected by our interaction with everyday visual culture; this is to say, the things that we see everywhere everyday. The movie Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. It takes a look at the proliferation of Helvetica, one of the most used typefaces in the world, as a part of “a larger conversation about the way typefaces affect our lives.” The film also works to “explore urban spaces and the type that inhabits them,” and intersperses these visual examples with interviews with renowned designers, who discuss Helvetica, the creative process of their work, as well as the aesthetic choices behind their works. This allows the viewer to see very clearly the rift between modernist and postmodernist designers, with the latter expressing and explaining their criticisms of the famous typeface.

This film makes the claim that the first problem that arises with a higher demand for more impressive space within the clutter of the visual landscape is a company’s desire to appeal to more people than its competition. In the 1950s, there was a demand for a more rational, legible, and “modern” typeface, which would simultaneously appeal to everyone and have “all the right connotations” (that is to say, none at all). The creators of the typeface believed that it was the social responsibility of designers to create order by use of a grid system and uniform spacing (as the spaces between the letters are as significant, or more significant, than the letters themselves). Modernist designers believe that Helvetica is the solution to all problems; that is, it works as the universal logo. This is because they believe that a font should be like a crystal goblet: the font itself should not communicate anything and a reader should not be aware of the typeface, except in its efficiency in communication.

However, postmodernists designers are unhappy with the way that Helvetica has become almost the typographic “default” of designers and is therefore leading to the decay of urban landscape. This has led to a swing back to subjective typeface designs as well as other experimental designs. Designers from this school of thought believe that typeface should display at least some degree of vitality and personality. This is because many post-modern designers believe that just because something is legible doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth reading. Therefore, they believe that in this sense, Helvetica’s legibility and overuse has led to overcrowding in the modern visual landscape with useless and often irrelevant information. Borrowing lettering design ideas from graffiti, stencils, grunge, and other hand-lettering styles, this film demonstrates how certain elements of street art have been appropriated and ruthlessly added into the corporate visual landscape. It’s rather ironic when this happens, because graffiti is widely considered a method of reclaiming public space or to display one’s art form.

This film gives those studying the corporate visual landscape important insight into the uses and connotations of typography. It leaves its viewers to question how typography affects them and their consumer behavior. But more than that, it shows how elements of the visual landscape will eventually be capitalized upon. Definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in learning more about graphic design and the corporate visual landscape.


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