Review: Fonts on film

I was nervous sitting down to watch this, the first ever graphic design movie. Will we designers come across as well as doctors, caring and considerate, or as crazy and inarticulate as American Survivalists? The film begins in New York, lots of shots of Helvetica adorning the street: on subway signs, posters, vans, logos. We get the point after three images… but 50. It’s boring. Massimo Vignelli explains that his generation longed for a typeface as legible and neutral as Helvetica, ‘We were ready for it when it came. It spelled Modern.’ Then to Münchenstein, Switzerland, the old Haas foundry, where Helvetica was born for a potted life story. More urban observations of Helvetica in use follow. Director Gary Hustwit obviously thinks this asserts its omnipotence, but the shots are so one-paced that I start to dread their reappearance. But the interviewees are wonderfully well picked. Paula Scher’s dry humour; Michael Bierut’s colourful, funny stories; Erik Spiekermann’s Arnold Schwarzenegger drawl had me wriggling with laughter; the lisping Danny van den Dungen of Experimental Jetset with his curly locks is as cool as any rock musician or artist. All have clever comments about Helvetica. It’s so common it’s like air; it’s the house font of both capitalism and socialism; it’s so uniform it’s not a typeface but an army. Slowly, carefully, the film expands to be about typefaces generally. So much ground is covered – design theory, work processes, politics, Stefan Sagmeister in the nude again. Everyone should see this film. I have never seen design better explained, nor look or sound so rich, so intelligent, or so sexy.

Helvetica screens daily at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y from 7-27 September

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