Helvetica. The Movie is an exemplary no frills documentary about typography and graphic design. It's basically a series of interviews with leading graphic designers such as Massimo Vignelli, David Carson, Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister and Erik Spiekermann, structured around the history of Helvetica and interspersed with film footage from around the world of the many places where Helvetica is used. It also features what is probably the longest unpaid-for product placement in the history of film making, since the Apple logo and Apple desktops and laptops are in full view for what I guess will be a total of around 10 minutes, if not more.
The documentary marked the 50th anniversary of the introduction of Helvetica in 1957. It is hard to believe the impact Helvetica had at the time, but if you compare it with some of the graphic design and typography of the time, you understand why.
The film gives a fascinating insight into contemporary visual culture. I remember how, in the late 80s, the work of Neville Brody seemed to epitomize what graphic design was about. Then along came David Carson and Raygun and everything changed. As the film nicely documents, the software that was suddenly within everyone's reach in the mid and late 90s created a sense of freedom, but that freedom gave way to a form of visual anarchy in which bad design could mask as expressionism. But a funky font does not make for good design.
It is interesting to hear Danny van den Dungen of Experimental Jetset, a Dutch design firm partly responsible for the recent renaissance of Helvetica, explain how punk combined both an anti-establishment destructive element and a do-it-yourself constructive element. I grew up in The Netherlands at more or less the same time as Danny van den Dungen and so I too was surrounded by high modernism on the one hand and the spirit of punk on the other. As in all my work I (still) waver between modernism and dirty realism.
It is interesting to observe that many of the leading graphic designers interviewed for the film have really poor websites. The problem is that a website requires a template that works for all content, unless you want to mark up every individual page, which I did once, when I could still oversee the number of pages. From 1998 until about 2002 it seemed as if Flash was the way to go and you got all these visually complicated sites, but the need for Google indexing changed all that, as did the need to be able to quickly navigate a site.
The film doesn't really go into the transformation brought about by the internet and it would be nice to do a documentary about the changing face of web design and how it challenges accepted practices. Erik Spiekermann does make an interesting remark about how Helvetica is a poor screen font. Matthew Carter also notes how computer screens required new fonts.
And an amusing tidbit. In the movie "Good Night and Good Luck", which is set in the early 1950s, the typeface used for the CBS News sign in one of the movie's prominent sets is Helvetica, even though it wasn't designed until 1957.