I finished out my stay in Austin yesterday with a slightly different rendition of what was, in many ways, the overriding SXSW Interactive theme: an idea crazy enough that it just might work. This time we were talking not about music-making dot-matrix printers or the next mind-blowing Web app but about a feature-length documentary on. . . a typeface.
Helvetica, which had its world premiere at the conference, presents the life story of something all of us encounter on a daily (or even hourly) basis. Created in 1957 by the Swiss modernist designer Max Miedinger as a response to the cluttered typography and design of the postwar era, Helvetica's clean neutrality and balanced use of the empty space surrounding letters quickly made it a go-to font for public signage, advertising, corporate logos and works of modernist design around the world. When it was licensed as a default font on every new Macintosh (itself a tool that revolutionized the design field), its position as the world's most ubiquitous typeface was solidified. In fact, saving any custom browser tweaks, you're looking at Helvetica right now on this blog (as well as the majority of all other sans-serif text on the Web).
An interesting story, to be sure, but worthy of an entire 80-minute documentary? Really? Yes.
Filmmaker Gary Hustwitt revels in his fascination with something so commonplace that it blends almost entirely into a context-less background, becoming a detective of sorts to unveil the myriad everyday places Helvetica is hiding (“It's a disease,” Hustwitt said of his obsessive font-spotting). And he's clearly not alone. He has assembled a laundry list of heavy hitters in the graphic-design world to wax poetic on Helvetica—and we're talking extremely poetic: One describes experiencing Helvetica as “like crawling through the desert, having your mouth full of dust and dirt, and suddenly being presented with a cold, clean glass of water”; another accuses its corporate sameness of playing a role in the Vietnam War. And they're only sort of joking. The film treats all of this with earnestness but without forgetting the fun, revealing something I never assumed most graphic designers would have: great senses of humor.
Helvetica begins its international screening tour this month. —John Mahoney