Customer Review

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Typeface as a weapon., March 22, 2009
This review is from: Helvetica (DVD)
Some of the more trivial things I learned from this documentary are that graphic designers don't wear ties, they do wear eyeglasses that sometimes are distracting, and they drink coffee out of simple plain white cups--not mugs.

The typeface Helvetica was created to carry the message of Modernism--simple, clear, without content of its own. Its job is get across whatever message is in the text. It can be used to tell you which is the men's room or why you should drink Coke.

Helvetica (a made-up word meant to connote "the Swiss typeface") was especially popular in Europe and in America in the 1960s and has never gone away.

But in the 1970s, because the use of Helvetica became universal in American advertising, a reaction set in--A.B.H., anything but Helvetica. Helvetica was for one American designer the typeface "behind the Vietnam War." (Judging by this documentary, American artists and designers reacted against Helvetica much more than Europeans did. Perhaps because, for Europeans after World War II, Modernism--which Helvetica represented--was already a reaction against the Romanticism in the Nazi ideology.)

A couple of the less trivial things I learned from the documentary are that few graphic designers seem to be women and that cultural stereotypes aren't dead. A German designer in the documentary said Helvetica typifies the "Swiss ideology" because every letter is like every other letter. He was a pretentious snob, but interesting to listen to. I learned more about him than about design. It reminds me of the old joke: "That's enough about me. Let's hear about you--what do YOU think about me?"

So the war between Helvetica and "grunge" typefaces became for some designers (especially the ones who worked on counterculture magazines and music art) a war between clarity vs. ideology, rationalism vs. humanism, socialism vs. capitalism.

That's why, one designer says, governmental agencies like the IRS use Helvetica. There's "a balance of push-pull" that makes you feel problems will go away. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. I wonder if there's such a thing as a graphic psychologist who could explain why the weight of the letters or the ratio of white space to black has the effect it does on people.

I don't want to make you think this film is overly serious. It's just that it has a lot of interesting ideas expressed by the people who use typefaces professionally. Most of the graphic designers interviewed love Helvetica and are effusive and articulate in telling why they love it so much.

I really liked the English designer whose professional dream is to do the design for an entire airline, from logo to crew uniforms to signs on the fuel trucks. His wife let him design their wedding invitations (the worst job in graphic design, according to him, because of all the people you have to please), but she wouldn't let him include an acknowledgment to Helvetica in their Order of Service for the wedding.
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