Behind the font of all knowledge
Sukhdev Sandhu talks to the director of a brilliant documentary about the typeface of choice for everyone from the United Nations to Nestlé and Toyota
One day in 2005, Gary Hustwit was wandering through the streets of New York, listening to music on his iPod, when he suddenly noticed something very odd. The signs on bin lorries, the opening-hours notices hanging from café doors, a newly opened American Apparel store: all of them were emblazoned with exactly the same kind of lettering. He looked around a little more: to his left was a billboard advertisement for American Airlines, to his right the name of a subway stop; these two also shared the same typeface. “It was like a secret language,” Hustwit recalls. “It seemed like I was the only one who realised it was everywhere.”
Hustwit is talking about Helvetica, the Swiss font about which he has just made a fascinating, sleekly composed and hugely entertaining documentary.
It is, he readily admits, a topic that threatens to plumb the very depths of obscurantism, even though anyone who uses a personal computer has the option of presenting documents in this or dozens of other typefaces.
Moreover, it is used not only by car-park firms and train companies, but, from Nestlé and Toyota to the United Nations, by many of the world’s most famous brands and organisations. “It’s always there. It defines the visual space of everyday life.”
Graphic designers are often regarded as pretentious, Nathan Barley-style peddlers of triviality. The great achievement of Helvetica, however, is to present distinguished practitioners in the field, such as Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister and Massimo Vignelli (the last of whom deployed the typeface to create the still-unchanged American Airlines logo in 1966), whose witty eloquence and passionate analyses of contemporary culture rival that of most philosophers or sociologists. They make their profession, dedicated as it is to the presentation and communication of information, appear socially and democratically invaluable.
Helvetica, originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, was developed by Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann in 1957. It was a Swiss creation: elegant, modern, attentive to the white spaces between and within each letter. The designers Hustwit interviews talk about it as “the ultimate typeface”, with an “inherent rightness” and a “feeling of finality”. Before long it was adopted by a number of global corporations, so that it came to represent governments, bureaucracy, capitalism.
It follows that the film, which
was shot in Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, London and New York, is also a valuable document about recent transformations nWestern urbanism.
The replacement of a previous era’s idiosyncratic signage – hand-drawn, pictorial, full of energetic italics – by a font that is characterised by its focus on clarity and grid-like segmentation mirrors the growing homogenisation of our cities; the clamour, clutter and mystique of the manufacturing era giving way to the over-lit, deodorised landscapes of the post-industrial service economy.
Helvetica subtly transforms us from citizens into consumers and subjects. “It’s used by local councils,” says Hustwit. “‘£200 For Littering’; Warning – High Voltage’; ‘Bill posters will be prosecuted’. It mposes on and restricts us, ending up having a kind of authoritarian feel to it.”
The film traces Helvetica’s temporary demise during the 1970s and 1980s when a generation of graphic designers, many of them weaned on the counter-cultural energies of pop music and of postmodern theory, opted for fonts that were more expressive, auteuristic and messy. One such designer is Paula Scher, who recalls thinking of Helvetica as “a conspiracy of my mother’s to make me keep the house clean”, and that “if you used it that meant you were in favour of the Vietnam War”.
Another is David Carson, art director of US music magazine Ray Gun, who describes how, faced with designing the pages for a magazine spread on Bryan Ferry, he found himself so bored by the interview that he converted all the text into totally unreadable Zap Dingbat form.
In recent times, Helvetica has been adopted by a new generation of international designers. This year New York’s Museum of Modern Art is staging an exhibition on it.
Hustwit has screened his film to large crowds everywhere from Turkey to Alabama, but it was most enthusiastically greeted in Zurich. “There were 800 people at the after-party which went on till 6am,” he recalls. “They had a giant mirrored ‘H’ that was spinning above the dance floor with laser lights pointed at it.
It was utterly bizarre.”
‘Helvetica’ screens daily at the ICA Cinema, London SW1 (020 7930 3647), from Sept 7-27, and will be released on DVD in Nov.
Secret language: the grid-like form of Helvetica is a staple on signs and logos, and a sy
ymbol of authority and capitalism, as filmmaker Gary Hustwit (below) reveals