Helvetica: The Movie

I watched Helvetica last night. Again.

My initial viewing in my Beginning Design class left me with impressions only, and I wanted to revisit the film after a few months of dealing with typography, grids, and visual hierarchy. I’m assuming that I don’t differ from most fledgling graphic designers (an acceptance of reality that undoubtedly does separate me from the majority of fledgling graphic designers) and I’ve been using Helvetica as the default font for every project I’ve taken on.* As many of the eccentric pillars of the design community** mention in the film, Helvetica is clean, ubiquitous, and safe to use on just about any project. It won’t make waves and you’ll appear to know what you’re doing. Really, if it’s good enough for the majority of corporate America, it’s probably good enough for my homework assignment.

Now, if you’re reading this and not a graphic designer, then you’re probably scratching your head at this point and wondering if it’s even possible to make an hour and a half movie about a font. I assure you it is. Helvetica is such a powerful cultural force at this point that whole books have been devoted to it (in a cultural critique kind of way, not in the sense that it is the font for the book, although there are those examples as well). One of the most interesting things my instructors stated in the afore mentioned design class was that an understanding and appreciation of typography is “what separates the designer from the desktop publisher.”

Statements like this seem to be bandied about in the design world all the time. As Helvetica points out, designers are an opinionated lot. Ironically, they are all right in some way so, like most heated debates, the question over Helvetica’s prominence and use will continue ad nauseam. In the meantime I will be sharpening my typographic vocabulary (ascender, serif, x-height, et al) and compiling three fonts that will work for every*** project, and three fonts to perpetually vilify. Watch out Comic Sans, I’m coming for you.

*But I only used Helvetica in the beginning: in every instance but one (when I was designing a movie poster for Helvetica, appropriately enough) it was transformed into a different font that seemed to better suit the content. I don’t want you thinking I’m a one-trick pony so early on in my career. Becoming that pony takes at least a few years in the professional world.

**Old skool
Massimo Vignelli, naughty David Carson, and the chillingly astute Stefan Sagmeister to name a few.

***Ahhh, type crime! You never just hit the bold button to fatten up some highlighted text. Big design no-no! This just adds weight to all the edges of the letter forms without a commiserate handling of the white space between the letters. Such an action brands you as the amateur that you are. It’s akin to using iWeb as your web design and blogging program.

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