Documentary Review: Helvetica (2007) and the Importance of Fonts

Fonts are part of our everyday life. Whether we pay attention to them or not, they influence the way we read and perceive texts. The Helvetica typeface is the single most widespread font family in the Western world. It’s everywhere. Street signs, logos, flyers, magazines, posters, the internet: This very blog is written in Helvetica. How did it became so popular? Where does it come from? Is it really the ultimate font? Can it be improved? Where is graphic design headed in the 21st century? And why do some people dislike it so much? 

Helvetica is a fascinating documentary on a subject that I’m sure not many people give a lot of thought to in everyday life. Fonts are something we take for granted. Mostly we notice them when they are poorly used: Bad spacing, many different character sizes or the use of an odd and/or illegible typeface. In reality however fonts consciously and subconsciously influence us when we read something. This documentary really makes a point of showing how much Helvetica is used, especially in big cities (New York, Amsterdam, Zürich).

The interesting thing is that I never noticed how much it’s employed even for company logos and I’m a marketing student and generally tend to pay attention to fonts. So even if even I, someone who thinks about fonts more than the average person (or so I’d like to believe), didn’t notice I’m sure a lot more people didn’t. Another interesting thing is the story of the font and its roots in Switzerland (hey! that’s where I live), and of course the name itself indicates its origins: Helvetia is latin for Switzerland.

Director Gary Hustwit and his crew do a good job of telling the fonts’ story through a series of interviews with several experts, designers and even people directly linked to the fonts creation. Most of the interviewees provide a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes about graphic design and their unique job. Helvetica is always entertaining, though it sometimes feels a bit unfocussed and mixes up a lot of different themes and discourses. The whole “political” discussion feels a bit on the nose and isn’t handled optimally, but at least different opinions are shown.

I liked that this documentary gives everyone a chance to speak their mind, while the filmmaker doesn’t directly come out and state his personal opinion, but rather lets everything unfold organically. What the film is lacking though is explaining the bigger ideas in a convincing way. While they show the importance of fonts in our everyday life, the whole thing could have been played up even more in my opinion. Also, I just finished this film a couple hours ago and I’m having a hard time remembering a lot.

Now, that might be my poor memory and age starting to show or maybe the fact that I’m no expert and there were a lot of specific terms being thrown around that I easily mix up and forget; but it could also just be the subject matter of the film or the way it was presented. Either way I still enjoyed Helvetica quite a bit. If a good documentary is as objective and neutral as possible then this one definitely is a good documentary. Like I said it’s also quite entertaining, although it repeats itself sometimes.

Rating on First Viewing: 7.5 out of 10


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