Why make a film about a typeface, let alone a feature documentary film about Helvetica? Because it’s all around us. You’ve probably already seen Helvetica several times today. It might have told you which subway platform you needed or tried to sell you investment services or vacation getaways in the ads in your morning paper. Maybe it gave you the latest headlines on television or let you know whether to “push” or “pull” to open your office door.
Since millions of people see and use Helvetica every day, I guess I just wondered, “Why?” How did a typeface drawn by a little-known Swiss designer in 1957 become one of the most popular ways for us to communicate written words 50 years later? And what are the repercussions of that popularity; has it resulted in the globalization of our visual culture? Does a storefront today look the same in Minneapolis, Melbourne, and Munich? How do we interact with type on a daily basis? And what about the effects of technology on type and graphic design and on the ways we consume it? Most of us use computers and digital fonts every day, so are we all graphic designers now, in a sense?
So let’s just say I had a few questions, and I thought making a film would be a good way to answer them. I also thought that looking at Helvetica’s “career” would be a good framework for looking at the past 50 years of graphic design and a starting point for some interesting conversations in the film. And I hoped that the film could make people who aren’t in the design trade think twice about the words that surround them and the effect that typefaces have on the way we process those words.
People like Wim Crouwel, Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf, Matthew Carter ... these are incredibly talented, knowledgeable, humble people, who each deserve an extensive documentary about their careers. And there are so many younger designers doing amazing work today as well, work that hasn’t been celebrated in documentary form yet. So I hope that in this film you’ll be able to get to know some of these people a little, see some of their work, and then hear their thoughts on type, and, of course, Helvetica.
— Gary Hustwit
Gary Hustwit, Director
Gary Hustwit has produced five feature documentaries, including I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the award-winning film about the band Wilco; Moog, the documentary about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog; and Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, a tour film about the band Death Cab for Cutie. Helvetica was Hustwit’s directorial debut and the first of a trifecta of design-oriented films, the second of which was Objectified. Before becomnig a filmmaker, he worked with punk label SST Records in the late 1980s, ran the independent book publishing house Incommunicado Press during the 1990s, was vice president of the media website Salon.com in 2000 and started the indie DVD label Plexifilm in 2001.