The Evolution of Helvetica

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As Plexifilm's president and head producer, Gary Hustwit's usual pursuits are music-related–everything from the recent Detroit techno doc High Tech Soul to Wilco's I Am Trying to Break Your Heart has passed through his productive hands. His latest project, Helvetica, focuses on the social, historical, and artistic implications of a singular typeface, but he says he approached the film "just like a rock 'n' roll documentary." Combining interviews with designers young and old, Helvetica tells a very visual tale of how the modernist font became so ubiquitous and controversial in today's ad-savvy world.

XLR8R: What do you like most about the Helvetica typeface?

Gary Hustwit: There's a feeling that Helvetica has that I like. It's not even about the way the lower case "e" is shaped or anything; it's more about the emotional, visual impact that it gives off when I see a word set in it. My family always flew on American Airlines and, of course, everything on American [font-wise] is in Helvetica. So I think part of me maybe remembers something about that, like the excitement of travel. Most of your reaction to a typeface is based on where you've seen it before, where else it's been used.

It was created as a neutral font.

Now it's loaded with meaning because all these different corporations, and everything from The Beatles' White Album to the space shuttle has got Helvetica all over it.

How does the film approach Helvetica's more controversial aspects

There's a very clear divide among graphic designers, artists, architects, or whoever–this sort of order versus chaos. And Helvetica is obviously on the side of order and rational design and clarity and logic. Where, on the other side, you've got emotional, subjective, interpretive design. So I think it's really kind of the modernist side of graphic design versus the more post-modernist, grunge, and punk rock. That's one source of the controversy. The other is that–in Helvetica's case–it's a default: It's on everyone's computer. People who really think about graphic design think it's a cop-out [to use it] just because it's there. And when people use it, they don't understand how to use it, or the history of the typeface, or what it should be used for.

What should it be used for?
[Laughs] People who have typographic experience or knowledge [will say] there are kind of a set of rules of things that you shouldn't do with type if you want it to be readable, et cetera. There are other people that think, "Hey, it's a free-for-all. As long as you like it, who cares what other people think about it?"