The story is told through poetic shots of the font’s use worldwide and interviews with designers who either love Helvetica or hate it, including Massimo Vignelli, Neville Brody, Matthew Carter, Wim Crouwel, and Alfred Hoffmann, whose father, Eduard, designed the font with Max Miedinger for the Haas Type Foundry in Munchenstein, Switzerland.
Hustwit is an unlikely Helvetica fan. After working for the seminal Los Angeles punk label SST Records in the 1990s, he founded an independent publishing house and opened a bookstore. Since then he’s been producing music documentaries, like Wilco’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, for the New York-based DVD label Plexifilm. I.D. talked to him about putting his passion for design onto the big screen.
Why do you suppose Helvetica, rather than its competitors, took over the world? It wasn’t a given. Univers by Adrian Frutiger was probably a better-designed system. But the people at Stempel and Linotype, who were distributing Helvetica, did a great marketing job. The face started out under the name Neue Haas Grotesk, but that was changed to Helvetica, based on the word Helvetia, which is Latin for “Switzerland.” Swiss design was becoming very trendy, and early sales brochures for Helvetica pretty much say, “You want Swiss design? Here you go.” Helvetica was Swiss design in a can. The other factor came when it was bundled into the first Macs. I’ve heard that Steve Jobs is passionate about typography, and he’s the one who chose it.
How did you become interested in typography? I had been a graphic design amateur, doing concert posters and book covers, and in the early ’90s I got Fontographer and started designing these grungy, scary-looking fonts. The first time I saw one used was in ’95 or ’96, for a CNN story on welfare. In the background, “welfare” was written out in a huge, ominous-looking font of mine for a million people to see. I thought, “Who decided that ‘welfare’ is a scary font? Why didn’t they choose some clean, optimistic typeface?” Maybe we all would have thought that welfare was a great thing, and we’d want to help out more. That got me thinking about the subtle and potentially subversive influence of fonts.
In researching the film, did you notice any differences in how the typeface is used across cultures? It’s used the same in any country in Europe or any city in America. Anything that has to do with machinery or construction or moving or trucking uses it. Every locksmith shop in Amsterdam and Zurich probably has it in the window. So when I first chose Helvetica I thought, “God, this will be easy.” I could see and hear this tone poem about type in our daily lives, in different parts of the world. But once you interview one person, that opens up a can of worms. You can’t talk about the font without talking about the context-modernism versus postmodernism, logical, rational, clear design versus the emotional and subjective. And from 1957 to 2007, so much has happened in graphic design, both stylistically and technically. Older designers kept talking to me about kilos-like, “Oh, yeah. We shipped about 1,000 kilos.” Because they really were metalworkers, melting steel into type and shipping it out. But today computers have made an obscure trade into something familiar. Most of us send emails and use digital fonts. Now you can have a totally rational conversation with an 8-year-old about typography’s effects.
But the font’s associations have mutated so much over the years. Sure. Some people think of Helvetica as sterile and emotionless. But Danny van den Dungen of Experimental Jetset makes the point that if you grew up with Helvetica in your schoolbooks, you may think it’s cozy and warm. I think of American Airlines whenever I see Helvetica. I associate it with travel. People wanted Helvetica to be neutral, but that’s impossible today because of all the ways it’s been used over 50 years.
Did the film make you think about modernism in a new light? Definitely. On one side, the early modernist movements were very subversive and very revolutionary. On the other there’s this formal, rational philosophy. Those two opposites were always going at each other, recombining in new ways. It’s the same with punk rock. There’s this anti-authoritarian, “please kill me” idea. But there’s also a do-it-yourself, constructive mentality.
Did shooting in all these public places ever get difficult? Sometimes. In London we shot this car wash that had Helvetica all over the place. A couple of guys came out, really pissed because they thought we were filming all their illegal workers. But Luke Geissbuhler, our director of photography, had just finished working on Borat, and after six months with Sasha Baron Cohen, shooting letters on a wall was no big deal. During Helvetica he was also nearly run over a couple of times, because we often shot in the middle of the street. Who knew Helvetica could get you killed?
Kobi Benezri is the former art director of I.D. Cliff Kuang is a senior associate editor at the magazine.