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Helvetica is the Typeface Savior: A Review on a Font Film

Typeface and graphic design are crucial to the way we observe a particular brand and organization. Also, the way a message is presented determines how we interpret what is being directed to us. After watching the documentary, Helvetica (2007), I learned more than just the importance of the font, I also learned the fundamentals of graphic design and typeface, such as spacing. At the beginning of the film, Italian designer, Massimo Vignelli, claimed that the spacing between the letters is what really matters for people to interpret words and letters. For instance, he references making AmericanAirlines one word, but having it be half red and half blue to indicate that they are different from each other. Also, he notes that using modern typeface like Helvetica is very clear and is better for having a proper spacing between letters and words, which is significant for posters and signs that we notice every day.

I also thought it was very interesting that Helvetica was commonly used because it seemed more “humanized” and not digital, even though it was a “digital print” style. From the film, I gathered that Helvetica was more than just a particular font, it was a font family. It was developed in the 1950s and it was said within the documentary that Helvetica provided a cleaner look on the way we take in letters and messaging, making things easier for us to understand. With that being said, during the film, I started to question why we use styles like Times New Roman for academic papers, rather than Helvetica if Helvetica was created to be more smooth, clear, and “human”. Meanwhile, Helvetica is used for store signs like Target, Bloomingdales, and UPS for a professional and promising appeal. Shouldn’t academic papers also be written in Helvetica since academic institutions promote the idea of professionalism? I thought the purpose of Helvetica was the most interesting part of the entire documentary.

I thought the structure of the documentary was different from most documentaries that usually start with the history and then end with the significance of something. Instead, the producers had the history discussed in bits and pieces of the documentary while mainly focusing on the evolution of Helvetica itself and its significance to human culture. Within the documentary, there was an elaboration on how Helvetica provoked people to go beyond the “ordinary, smooth, clean surface of design”— introducing different styles of typeface that were less professional and more free-spirited. One graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister, claimed that modernized typeface has become disappointing since it was “boring” due to the constant necessity of having words spaced a certain way and layouts following a certain format since it lacked creativity. This surprisingly created controversy since there has always been a single form of typeface and graphic design, however, the producers later show how Helvetica encouraged new ideas of formatting, which is significant to human culture since it allows expression in an artistic form. The producers are able to emphasize the artistic relevance of Helvetica through various close-up shots of street signs, billboards, and images that are written in Helvetica in different colors and styles, such as bold, regular, and italic. By capturing these shots, the producers were able to further prove the point that Helvetica is all around us and can be found in places that we never realized, such as our tax papers or on corporate signs.

The documentary Helvetica is watchable on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and other services.

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