The Film

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INSIDE HELVETICA
Young women standing, reading, and seated in front of storefront windows, one with a bang that has large sans-serif letters on it
Find out which font expresses your personality. From the Diamond Sutra to digital typesetting, learn how type evolved. Find out what inspired the filmmaker to make HELVETICA.

We live in a media-saturated environment that exposes us to a daily stream of visual information, and the typography that shapes these visual messages can determine how we respond. HELVETICA, ostensibly a film about a typeface, delves into the world of graphic arts and takes a deeper look into style changes and the controversies over the role of graphic designer since World War II. Filmmaker Gary Hustwit explores urban spaces and the typefaces that inhabit them, speaking with renowned historians and designers about the choices and aesthetics behind the use of certain fonts.


The Helvetica font was developed by Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland and quickly became an international hit in the graphic arts world. With its clean, smooth lines, it reflected a modern look that many designers were seeking. At a time when many European countries were recovering from the ravages of war, Helvetica presented a way to express newness and modernity. Once it caught on, the typeface began to be used extensively in signage, in package labeling, in poster art, in advertising—in short, everywhere. Inclusion of the font in home computer systems, such as the Apple Macintosh in 1984, only further cemented its ubiquity.

Fans of Helvetica tout its legibility and its versatility, finding it equally “perfect” for use in a corporate logo or on a local street sign. But not everyone is a fan. Some designers find Helvetica to be dull, predictable and boring. In the 1970s, a backlash occurred when young designers began looking for more energetic, expressive ways to present information. This post-modernist reaction to Helvetica included the “grunge” period of the 1990s, when designers experimented with new concepts in graphic communication, moving away from the orderly, predictable look of Helvetica to a mix of print styles and a wildly varying use of color and line.

Interviewees in HELVETICA include some of the most illustrious and innovative names in the design world, such as Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, Neville Brody, Michael Bierut, Paula Scher, Tobias Frere-Jones, Bruno Steinert, Leslie Savan, Rick Poynor and Lars Müller. Through the framework of graphic design, HELVETICA explores the tension between the adherence to established principles of design and the desire to express individual thought and taste. The film acknowledges the belief that art is subjective, revealing that print is far more than merely letters forming words.

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