Facing up to fame

Typography is fashionable, with articles in Vogue and a film dedicated to Helvetica. Adrian Shaughnessy welcomes these tributes to the value of graphic design

A film about a typeface? Shurely shome mishtake? No, it really does exist. Helvetica, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit, is a feature-length celebration of the 50th anniversary of the venerable typeface. The documentary has contributions from Michael Bierut, Rick Poynor, Stefan Sagmeister, David Carson, Paula Scher, Massimo Vignelli, Experimental Jetset, Wim Crouwel, Matthew Carter, Erik Spiekermann, Michael C Place, Hermann Zapf and others. The movie has its own website, www.helveticafilm.com, and clips can be found on YouTube.

After a recent New York screening, Bierut, writing in Design Observer, commented, ‘The film is great. (And not just because I’m in it, nasal Cleveland accent and all.) Hustwit has structured the film’s interviews to create a perfect short course in post-war graphic design… I left the preview feeling thrilled to be a graphic designer.’

I haven’t seen the film, so this is not a review. But its mere existence seems to raise at least two interesting questions. The first is the debate around Helvetica itself. It is undoubtedly a significant typeface, yet despite its famous ‘machine age’ construction and the widely held view that it represents the pinnacle of Modernist democratic perfection, Helvetica does not enjoy universal approval. In the film, Crouwel purrs approvingly about its ‘neutrality’ (it is a Swiss font, after all), but it is this ‘neutrality’ that causes many people to dislike it.

In fact, Helvetica has always struck me as being a bit of a charlatan. Far from being a fail-safe typeface that anyone can use, it is actually one of the most difficult typefaces to deploy effectively. It requires a high degree of typographic finesse to make it work. It needs to be used with the barest minimum of sizes and weights, and it needs exceptional amounts of care with tracking and leading. To get all this right demands skill and judgment, which is why most applications we see are clumsy and unsatisfactory.

The second question is, what does a film like this say about the profession of graphic design? Does it show us up as the self-obsessed, craft-fixated introverts – the nerds of visual culture – that many people think we are? Or does it show us as thoughtful contributors to the rich panoply of visual life? Only a careful viewing of the film will tell us which.

Typography has been on an upswing for a few years now. Thanks to the omnipresence of home computers it is no longer the mystery it once was. Even Vogue magazine thinks that it’s a fit subject to place alongside its sleek models, jewellery, handbags and make-up: in the May issue there is a short roundup of current typographic trends incorporating Jonathan Barnbrook, Jenny Holzer and David Jury, written by Design Week contributor Dominic Lutyens.

If Hustwit’s film is as good as Bierut says it is, then I welcome it. My guess is that it will do more to raise the profile of graphic design than all those well-intentioned initiatives that try to show design as an indispensable component in modern business. I don’t dispute for a minute that good design goes hand in hand with good business. But no one outside the hothouse of design is much interested in attempts to align design with number crunching and other essential, but dreary disciplines. Much better to listen to Spiekermann telling us that he’s a ‘typo-maniac’ and that typefaces are his ‘friends’, or to listen to Dutch trio Experimental Jetset discussing the ‘subversiveness’ of Modernism.

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