Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Font of fascination

A film about a font. You've got to be kidding?

Well, no. Helvetica is a documentary with more laughs than most recent Hollywood comedies and has more to say about the twentieth century than any number of millennium-eve specials. We get the history of the past 50 years - since Helvetica's invention - refracted through a particular, ubiquitous style of letters.

And Helvetica is ubiquitous: it has been adopted by retailers, companies and government agencies all over the western world, adorning every square inch of our eyeline, from streetsigns to clothes hangers, train doors to trash carts. If we paid a little more attention, we'd see a lot more Helvetica.

This film is not, however, just a long-form eye-spy. Helvetica was invented in Switzerland - adapted from a nineteenth century sans serif font - in 1957 as a reaction to the dominant and wicked ideologies of recent decades. It was as plain and pleasing as a font could get: no funny little curlicues, no over-elongation or Gothic heaviness - just simple letters, elegant and clear. It was supposed to be neutral and objective (which is, ironically, an ideology).

Its surprise success stemmed from its clarity, overturning advertising's previous dogmas of complex, cartoonish fonts and pictorials. Instead, it installed simplicity - and thus 'honesty' - as key principles of ads. Soon it became the only font one should use, but this of course brought a backlash, both artistic and philosophical. It was too closely associated with corporate America and thus - in the mind of at least one talking head - the Vietnam War. It acquired its own ideological baggage and set in train 'grunge' fonts, which were anything but plain and objective.

The pendulum swung from a pacificist aim of objectivity to an embrace of difference and variety, as is paralleled in the cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s, leaving Helvetica behind until the pendulum returned in recent years. Just as we are now in the age of Web 2.0, the age of user-design (MySpace being the most obvious example), so Helvetica can carry the consumer's ideology, rather than anyone else's.

Director Gary Hustwit has a strong thesis to string his film around and he fills in the details with a (for the world of fonts) dazzling array of talking heads. Seeing Hermann Zapf (as in Zapf Dingbats) was genius - who imagined there was actually a Mr. Zapf? There were Helvetica old-guards, who remembered its roll-out, and Helvetica guerrillas, who would do anything but use it. Several of the heads were so passionately for or against Helvetica that you got a neat glimpse into how a designer's mind worked.

My main reservation is a criticism regularly levelled at the west: cultural imperialism. The film presumes that what it says is globally applicable - it's a history of our times - but it is really only a history of countries that use the Roman alphabet, which can't even count half the world. Understandably the use of fonts in other alphabets is its own subject, but a little more awareness of the limited battles Helvetica has fought would be salutary.

What initially seems like a barren field, of interest only to fontophiles, is in fact a fascinating way of viewing the past half-century, and with strong visuals and lively interviewees. Hustwit has made fonts fascinating.

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