Review: All ‘Helvetica’ breaks loose

Nonfiction cinema, bless its eclectic heart, keeps delivering the nifty novelty doc, and “Helvetica” is the latest such pleasure. Slight but distinctive, the film is both an absorbing consideration of the modern landscape’s dominant typeface and a contagiously appreciative salute to the designers who determine the look and feel of the letters and words we process on a daily basis.

Directed by Gary Hustwit (“Moog”), the film explores modern design, the role typefaces play, and the staying power of Helvetica — the elegant, no-frills typeface that has become the default in computer systems and the prevailing form used in public signage, corporate logos and advertisements. The film’s release coincides with Helvetica’s 50th birthday.

Helvetica, we learn, was developed by designer Max Miedinger in Switzerland in 1957 as an upgrade of a German sans-serif type. Its modern, sophisticated look proved a welcome change from oldfangled cursive styles, and corporate and government entities began using Helvetica in everything from letterhead to building signs.

Having saturated the picture by the 1970s, Helvetica experienced a backlash. Detractors branded it conformist, and hand-drawn letters became the trend. In the 1990s, the tide again shifted, and a desire for structure and stability prompted Helvetica’s resurgence.

Hustwit includes commentary from about 18 design-world notables — designers Massimo Vignelli and David Carson and cultural critic Leslie Savan among them. Collectively an irresistibly passionate and amusingly wonky bunch, they tend to extol Helvetica for its graceful balance of black letters and white space, while sometimes condemning Helvetica for being what one observer deems “armylike.” Several note the typeface’s “neutral” quality, which allows Helvetica to convey whatever is desired.

Hustwit illustrates the latter element, along with Helvetica’s ubiquitousness, in montages that show the typeface everywhere — on signs, on IRS forms, on the side of the space shuttle, on the Beatles’ White Album.

Running only 80 minutes, the film doesn’t deeply develop the ideas it introduces — how the look of a word can significantly affect how the brain digests that word, for example. Nor does it much explore how these times of the PC, where people seem more likely to be able to name nine fonts than the nine Supreme Court justices, will shape typography’s evolution.

But it’s an interesting, informative and entertaining documentary that should agreeably awaken viewers to the typefaces of our lives and why they matter, and to the role of the designer in the letter and spirit of it all.

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