Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Helvetica (29/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Helvetica is the first part in a trilogy directed by Gary Hustwit about the roles of design in contemporary society.

This 2007 documentary focuses on the more than 50-year-old typeface that still appears on signage, advertising, and other documents around the world. Because of its age, Helvetica offers an interesting look at the changing nature of type and design from the analog era to the digital era.

This theme appears in the first sequence in the film. The film opens with a typesetter choosing individual letters and arranging them as part of the printing process. Throughout the documentary, montages show both city scenes and logos that use the font, such as American Apparel, American Airlines, Verizon, and Target. Both New York City subway signs and IRS tax forms also use the font.

Interviews with experts in the design field reveal the history, meaning, and importance of Helvetica. Words and phrases such as “modern” and “more machined” attempt to describe what the font means in terms of design and its uses.

While many experts express an admiration for the font, not everyone shares that view. When asked about why the font remains popular after 50 years, Erik Spiekerman replies, “Why is bad taste ubiquitous?”

A film about the nuances of a font and of design needs to be beautifully shot, and Helvetica does just that with clean camera work and uncluttered interview sequences. The montages bring together images from cities around the world, and they do so smoothly and neatly. The music provides just the right underscore to bring these elements together.

What struck me in this documentary is how few female experts appear. The first one appears about 45 minutes in. That makes me wonder just how few women work in the field.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.