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is graphic designer and filmmaker Gary Hustwit’s feature-length film
about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It examines
the life and legend of the most universal of all the
faces—Helvetica—which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2007. The film
is further an exploration of how the typeface inhabits the culture and
environment. Shot in high-definition on location in the United States,
England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium, the
film is currently in post-production and is slated to begin screening at
film festivals worldwide starting in early 2007.
Interviewees in Helvetica include some of the most illustrious and
innovative names in the design world, including Erik Spiekermann,
Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, Neville
Brody, Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Bierut, Jonathan Hoefler, Tobias
Frere-Jones, Experimental Jetset, Michael C. Place, Norm, APFEL, Pierre
Miedinger, Bruno Steinert, Otmar Hoefer, Rick Poynor, Lars Muller, and
more. Here Hustwit talks about how Helvetica has been typecast for the
screen. Roll the interview.
Steven Heller: So, you’re making a documentary on Helvetica? Why did you select this theme?
Gary Hustwit: In the late ’80s, I got involved
with book publishing and was designing book covers and interiors, which
was the start of my fascination with typography. I even designed a few
very bad typefaces in the mid-1990s. Then five years ago I got involved
with independent filmmaking. I started producing documentaries—mostly
music-related films like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the Wilco documentary.
I’d learned how to make films, and I was still a type fanatic, so I
figured why not make a documentary about typography? Originally, I was
thinking of making a film about type design, past, present and future.
But I soon realized that in order to cover all of typography, and really
do it justice, it would take at least five years of research and
shooting. So it occurred to me it might be easier to just focus on one
typeface. Helvetica’s 50-year “career” also mirrors a period of dramatic
change for the type trade and the design world in general. So I thought
it would be a good structure through which to look at those issues.
Heller: Helvetica may be the typeface of the 20th century,
but how do you make a documentary about a neutral typeface that will
hold an audience's attention? For some, talking about type is like
watching paint dry.
Hustwit: From the beginning I wanted the film to
be engaging, both visually and emotionally. Since my background is in
music documentaries, I’ve always thought of Helvetica as a
music film about a typeface. I’m not sure what that means, but in the
film you’ll see Helvetica in action in major cities, people interacting
with it in their daily lives. So visually, Helvetica is about
urban spaces and the words that inhabit them, and using this imagery to
demonstrate how we’re influenced by thousands of words every day.
The conversations in the film address the creative process, how
technology has affected graphic design, modernism versus postmodernism,
and much more. I think those are topics that everyone, especially
designers, will find compelling. The interviews also serve as
mini-portraits of the type designers and graphic designers in the film.
Many of these people, Wim Crouwel or Massimo Vignelli or Matthew Carter
for instance, have had such amazing careers that they each deserve a
full documentary devoted just to them. There hasn’t been enough
recognition for what they’ve done, so I wanted try to tell their stories
in addition to Helvetica’s.
Heller: Most documentarians start with a premise and find
witnesses and interviewees to support this. How did you go about
investigating Helvetica? And what did you learn along the way that you
didn’t know before?
Hustwit: I guess my initial premise for the film
was one question: Why? Why has a typeface designed 50 years ago by Max
Miedinger, a little-known Swiss designer, become so ubiquitous? Why is
it that you can walk out of your door in any city in this country and
find it everywhere? Is it just intrinsically good or more legible than
other typefaces? Or was it marketed more effectively when it was
originally introduced? I got plenty of opinions about the reasons for
its popularity. I talked to designers who were working at the time of
Helvetica’s introduction, and to people like Mike Parker, who was with
Linotype USA in the early ’60s and one of Helvetica's early advocates. I
talked to designers who grew up with Helvetica, like the Dutch design
team Experimental Jetset, who use Helvetica religiously and have a
completely different view of the typeface than their American
What did I learn along the way? I guess you’ll have to see the film to find the answer to that.
Heller: Lars Muller published a book that was an ode to
Helvetica. Is your film an ode, or have you discovered historical
footage and/or documents that will add to the historiography?
Hustwit: It’s difficult to describe, but I don’t
think my film is either of those things. It’s an art film about urban
spaces. It’s a series of profiles of amazing designers. It’s an
introduction to typography, an art that most people take for granted. I
guess the scope is wider than Lars’s book, which is more of a catalog of
examples of Helvetica use over the past 50 years. I think I try to get
deeper into the underlying reasons for its success, and we get into the
strategies and aesthetics behind the use of type by the designers in the
Heller: It’s hard enough getting funding for documentaries
on themes that have widespread appeal. Assuming for now this has limited
initial appeal—though it could introduce the masses to type in the way Spellbound introduced them to spelling bees—how difficult was it for you to get backing? And who is doing the backing now?
Hustwit: I financed the film myself. It was either
put a down payment on a house or make a film about Helvetica. But I’ve
learned over the years that if I like something, there are a lot of
other people out there who will like it too. So I had faith that the
film would find an audience, and since we announced the film and put the
[website] up, the response
has been incredible. There are literally millions of graphic designers
in the world, but how many great graphic design documentaries have been
made and released in theaters up to now? Zero.
Heller: What has been the response to your screenings?
Hustwit: I screened a three-minute teaser of the
film at TypeCon in Boston in August, and the response was phenomenal.
Granted, the audience members at TypeCon are easy marks for this film.
The challenge has been to try to maintain an editorial balance so that
it’s engaging to professional designers, yet accessible to the general
public. Once we start screening the finished film at festivals in
January, we’ll see if it works.
Heller: You’ve interviewed a number of contemporary
designers (some who are Helvetica-philes). What has come out of these
talks that you would never have scripted?
Hustwit: The thing that most surprised me was the
complete lack of egos among all the designers in the film. They are all
lucky enough to earn a living doing what they love, which I’m sure
helps, and I think they were amused that I was actually making a film
about Helvetica. Another thing I didn’t realize or expect was the very
sharp modernist/postmodernist divide. To see it in practice, in the work
of these designers and in their philosophies, was pretty eye-opening
for me, and I think it’s definitely changed my personal approach to
Heller: Is Helvetica still the dominant face in Switzerland?
Hustwit: I think so, yes. Zurich is infested with
it. But I was a little surprised by how dominant it is in Germany,
almost more so than in Switzerland. But in all the cities we shot in, it
was never an issue of finding Helvetica. We simply couldn’t avoid it.
The goal then became to find the most interesting usage. In the end, we
just got lucky with a lot of the shooting. We’d be driving around in
say, Berlin, and suddenly we’d see a man suspended by ropes from a huge
billboard, applying 10-foot-tall Helvetica letters to it. There were so
many instances like that over the months we spent filming. We called
them “happy accidents.”
Heller: Have you had your fill of Helvetica?
Hustwit: I’ve had my fill of editing a film about
it! And it really haunts me on the street now, I keep seeing examples of
it that I wish I could’ve filmed. I wasn’t a Helvetica freak or
anything when I started this project, but I think it’s become my
If I met the younger version of myself, we’d take a walk—the same walk I
take every day—so I could explain to young me that routine and
paramount. You have to choose a category header, but it’s only as
permanent as you need it to be. You have to choose a theme song and stay
with it. Decide.
If only for an hour or a day or a week.
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