Sunday, March 18, 2007

Helvetica - The Movie

On the last night of SXSW, when everyone else is out in the clubs enjoying live music, what do I decide to do? Go to a documentary on the typeface Helvetica, of course. I had been planning to see the film all week, but always got sidetracked with other activities. The final screening was 10pm Saturday. I was so tired of roaming downtown Austin and standing at rock shows, that I decided a film about a font would be my best bet. Then, I'd still have time to run to Stubbs for Spoon and The Stooges.

Helvetica is an interesting look at the history and prominence of the typeface that is so widely used. It came into existence in the late '50s, after an era of design in which type was script or old style and design included staged photographs or illustrations, mainly of people or buildings. Swiss graphic designer Max Miedinger developed Helvetica. It was originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, but was later changed for marketing purposes. Helvetica is a derivation of the word Helvetia, which is the Latin word for Switzerland. It was meant to signify clean, official, and efficient design, with white space as important as the type itself. This was a clear break from earlier design styles and launched the modernist aesthetic.

In the late 70s and early 80s, a backlash was mounted against Helvetica, with a preponderance of type that looked hand-styled and chaotic, representing more the post-modern movement. The late 90s is seeing a return to the tenets of Helvetica with new theories. Some love its no-nonsense approach, but others are critical of what it stands for, corporate efficiency. One designer said that there is a fine line between simple, clean, and powerful... and simple, clean, and boring.

Whatever the view, Helvetica is ubiquitous in our environment, from corporate logos to signage throughout the world. I loved this film, and if it is released for distribution, it should be seen by all design students.

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