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Commentary

Helvetica, The Film

Typographica on August 6, 2006

Helvetica FilmHelvetica turns 50 next year and it’s getting a pretty fancy gift: a biopic. Helvetica, the first feature-length film about a font, will premiere in 2007. The official website launched today.

Now that you’ve all gasped and snickered, let me add that this will be no comic parody. Helvetica is serious stuff. It’s probably the most pervasive and well-known of all typefaces, and one of the more controversial — the perfect window through which to introduce general audiences to the esoteric world typography. As Director Gary Hustwit explains:

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 … How did a typeface drawn by a little-known Swiss designer in 1957 become one of the most popular ways for us to communicate our words fifty years later?

The film is studded with the stars of typography: Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Michael Bierut, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, Stefan Sagmeister, Jonathan Hoefler, Tobias Frere-Jones, Experimental Jetset. Hustwit is no slouch either. His resume includes I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the 2002 film about Wilco, considered by many to be one of the best documentaries about a band and the music industry.

Helvetica Film Still
A scene from Helvetica shot at Manfred Schulz’ letterpress in Frankfurt.

A sneak preview of Helvetica will be screened at TypeCon in Boston on Wednesday, August 9th, as part of The Third Annual Typophile Film Festival. I’ll be there. Share some popcorn with me as we boo and hiss at the villain Arial, should he dare make an appearance.

See also: The Helvetica Meditations

2 Comments

  1. Darren Scott says:

    Had a few ideas of my own for Helvetica posters, see below!

    http://truthdesign.typepad.com/truth_design/typography/index.html

  2. This email correspondence is in response to 
seeing the film, Helvetica. October 6, 2008

    To The Helvetica Film Team:

    I recently had the pleasure of watching your movie,
    Helvetica, and I thought that it was very good overall.
    However, never once was Geigy Pharmaceutical and its
    top graphic design team (many now in Helvetica Heaven
    like Fred Troller, Theo Welti, Marcus Lowe and many
    others.) mentioned in the role that Helvetica played in the
    worldwide corporate identity (Branding) that Geigy
    created using Helvetica. (In the beginning Geigy originally
    had an exclusive contractual agreement for the use of
    Helvetica to my knowledge) Geigy literally wrote the book
    on Corporate/Brand Identity through their in-house design
    group both in Basel and in the U.S. which many others
    followed throughout the world and in many cases still
    follow. We all have creative license to create history as
    we choose and that is very acceptable here in the
    colonies, but to have the Swiss designers who were
    interviewed in your film leave Geigy out is astonishing. 

    All the designers interviewed missed a valuable part of
    Graphic Design History by leaving out the incredible
    Graphic Design movement at Geigy, Basel. There has
    been nothing like it since. Maybe you were aware of this
    or maybe it was edited out…. but unfortunately many
    young and growing designers have lost a valuable piece
    of inspiring graphic design/type history needed in today’s
    industry. Geigy In-House Design ( design/copy standards
    continued through the merger of Ciba & Geigy ) played a
    very important role in the use of
    Helvetica globally in setting Swiss Design standards
    including the grid, flush left, copy setting and copy writing
    standards. Most of all, when design&copy= concept, the
    audience would actually be GRABBED by the
    combination of graphic+headline and would actually
    READ stunning copy in an era of perfection and creativity
    when design&copy ruled. In my opinion, you had the
    opportunity to preserve a fabulous movement in global
    graphic design&copy concept guided by Helvetica. Clean
    & Simple… when marketing wasn’t a department and
    design& copy had a godfather… or today when creativity
    and democracy = mediocrity. It doesn’t have to be good
    anymore… just good enough.

    Thanks,
    Bob Talarczyk,

    Creative Director/CEO
    Darkhorse Design, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

    Former Design Director, Producer Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals,U.S.A.

    (this email was originally sent to the creators of Helvetica (the film) Swiss Dots, London with no response)

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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