Helvetica: The Documentary

I ran across Jeff Atwood's blog post, Typography: Where Engineers and Designers Meet, about a week ago. Like Jeff, I've been interested in fonts and typography for a long time. As a matter of fact, I used to create bitmap fonts for the TI-99/4a, Commodore 64, and Atari 400/800. I'm sure if I dug through enough boxes I could find a pile of old graph paper with 8 pixel x 8 pixel character sets on them! Those were the days. 🙂

Until Jeff's post, I hadn't heard about the Helvetica film by Gary Hustwit. I immediately ordered the DVD (it's only $20), it arrived a few days later, and I watched it this morning. What a great movie! It was obvious from the moment I pressed play that this was made by someone who is passionate about the subject. From the beautiful photography to the perfect music, this film reflects the cleanliness and simplicity that is Helvetica. You do not have to be a font geek to appreciate this documentary.

The film traces the history of the typeface from the 1950s when it was known as Neue Haas Grotesk. Through fascinating interviews with industry luminaries and designers, we hear how Helvetica has influenced graphic design and typography over the years. Along the way, we also discover how pervasive it really is. I particularly enjoyed the balance of perspectives (some like Helvetica, some despise it, and many are apathetic). I also found the insights into design and the creative process to be very inspirational.

If you decide to buy the DVD, be sure to watch the extras. The feature itself is around 80 minutes long, and the extras run for over 95 minutes! Here are some of the topics that are touched on: Pencil vs. mouse; How technology has affected type design; The reader’s awareness of typefaces; Helvetica and the Macintosh; Helvetica and branding; “Mean” Modernists; Music packaging; One typeface is not enough; Designing for an audience; Approach to design; The value of good design; The Simple typeface. The extras are almost like watching a bonus movie.

As a Microsoft employee, my ears perk up whenever I hear our company name mentioned (which is quite often). So, I particularly enjoyed listening to comments from Erik Spiekermann about our Arial typeface where he calls us "big bullies," says that we're "baddies," explains why he "won't go near a Microsoft product," calls us despicable, and adds that we're "mean bastards." I'm not here to argue with Erik, because frankly, I don't have enough context, but I appreciate his passion!

If you have any interest at all in typography, this is easily worth $20. Highly recommended.

Comments (3)

  1. I watched the first half of the movie through Netflix Browse Instant (use to be Watch Now). I found it interesting and well made, but the subject matter just couldn’t hold my interest for the whole movie.

    The bonus features sound very interesting though. Too bad Netflix doesn’t offer those online.

  2. Friday says:

    Then I bet you’ll like this:


  3. First, we’ve coordinated a special screening of Gary Hustwit’s new documentary film, Objectified , at

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