How nerdy can you get? A movie about typography? About a font??? (Well, actually, it’s a typeface, but the ubiquity of Windows and Macs has trained people to call typefaces “fonts”; I’m sure I’ll slip up and do so here.) Helvetica is an absolutely wonderful but very geeky movie with a rather limited audience. Graphic designers, computer aficionados, and those of us who care about the appearance of type will all love this documentary. If you’re not in any of those three groups, go see it anyway. You’ll learn something. You might even enjoy it!
Although I was intrigued from the get-go, when I started watching the DVD I was initially reserved in my enthusiasm, because the first half hour or so of Helvetica is a paean to that particular typeface, which I don’t much like. (Note the rarity of it in this blog, though I do offer a small concession by putting my headings in Helvetica.) I was worried that the rest of the film would continue in its unvarnished one-sidedness, hitting the viewer over the head with the claim that the ubiquity of Helvetica is due to the fact that it’s the solution to all font problems, the font that can be used everywhere. But fortunately it turned out that there was a healthy balance of opinion, including quite a number of articulate remarks by designers who refuse to see Helvetica as the be-all and end-all, ranging from sensible traditionalists to off-the-wall grunge fans.
Of course the issue isn’t really which font you prefer. (Some people even like Comic Sans, after all.) The real issue is whether you want typography to say something or whether you want it to be transparent. That question is explored well in Helvetica, though the bias is still quite clearly in favor of Helvetica in particular and transparency in general. I suppose my position is somewhere in between: I don’t want typography to disappear from consciousness altogether, but I certainly do want it to help the content shine through.