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Christian Davis

English 250H

Don Payne

Simplicity

Helvetica, a fantastic documentary film by Gary Hustwit, brings to light the

science, function, and controversy over the world’s most ubiquitous typeface. With

its simple and intuitive directing as well as its accessible and engaging narrative,

Helvetica is both educational and fascinating. While one would not necessarily

expect a film about the shapes (and more importantly the spacing – more on that

later) of letters to be particularly interesting, the end result is a truly amazing look at

something we see everyday don’t even bother to think twice about. Helvetica shows

the intricacies in the design of the font that has become the no-brainer standard for

innumerable businesses and ad campaigns, and offers a closer look at its use and

designers’ opinions on said use in everyday situations. But how is it that a film about

the particular design of lettering is able to be so interesting and engaging?

Before I even watched Helvetica, I had formed an opinion about it. I had

heard about it multiple times, and I knew that the general response was

overwhelmingly positive, but I still had doubts about it. It seemed impossible to me

that a film about a font could hold my attention for a whole 80 minutes, let alone
keep me interested and wanting more. However, I gave it a chance, and watched it

the whole way through.

The film begins with a man imprinting the title Helvetica onto a white card.

While this may not sound exciting, it somehow manages to be suspenseful and

stimulating. As the man goes to grab letters to be placed into order, close-up shots

of all of the letters to choose from are shown. If it hasn’t already, it becomes clear to

the viewer that this film is not about a character who falls in love and lives happily

ever after; this film is about letters. This film is about the size, shape, curves, and

spacing of letters, and the subsequent debate surrounding them.

If Helvetica makes one thing clear, it is the simplicity of the subject font. The

director drives this simplicity home throughout the rest of the film with his use of

photography, music, and straight-to-the-point debate. There is simplicity in just

about every aspect of the documentary; in fact, the documentary is based around

this ideology of simplicity.

Even before the documentary starts, music begins to play in the background.

Just like the rest of the film, the music is simple: a 1-2 bass line, a simple drone in

the background that gets louder and louder as it goes on, and eventually some light

drum work to give it character. At no point throughout the film is there any music

that includes lyrics or even vocals; these elements would be a bit too distracting and

could detract from the simplicity of the film. Instead, the director sticks to the use of

simple instrumental pieces that add ambiance to the shots of Helvetica in use all

over the world.


The director uses a particular technique consistently throughout the film to

keep things interesting. Just about every time a new section is introduced, whether

it involves a new interviewee or a new topic altogether, the director shows lots of

shots of Helvetica being used in everyday life, one after the other. Even more so,

the camera is first zoomed in on a particular instance of the font, showing the

extreme detail of the lettering and allowing the viewer to recognize the elements of

design that are so detailed throughout the film. Afterwards, the same shot but

zoomed out is shown, revealing the location and context of that particular instance

of Helvetica. Because this technique is used so many times, it could have become

overused and uninteresting quickly, but it manages to stay fresh and exciting as it

reveals one instance of the font after another.

Another method of photography used is what I like to call a still shot. With

this method the director frames the shot and leaves the camera perfectly still, letting

the scene direct and play itself. The reason this works so well for Helvetica is

because text, as a general rule, stays stationary. In order for people to be able to

read text (which is especially important in the case of advertising and graphic

design), it needs to be large and usually stay in one spot. The still frame technique

highlights the scenes of everyday life in which Helvetica is used. In one particular

example, a shot of the underground at Broadway-Lafayette St is used. We as

viewers are instantly able to recognize the font being used for the sign as Helvetica.

Because the sign and text stays completely still and focused while all the action

happens around it, it highlights the text a unique way. The director uses this
technique to show us viewers just one more example of this ubiquitous and

omnipresent font.

Another element of the film is the clear and concise opinions of the

interviewees, and most importantly, the stark contrast in these opinions. Because

the director interviewed people mainly focused on graphic design, who either

consistently use or have worked with Helvetica, the film can go into the intricacies of

the font and the opinions surrounding it. And the results are simple: the interviewees

either really love it, or they hate it with passion. Some think it is the best font since

sliced bread. As interviewee Jonathan Hoefler states: “… Helvetica… says

everything, and that's perhaps part of its appeal.” Interviewee Leslie Savan is even

more adamant of her love for Helvetica:

“Helvetica has almost like a perfect balance of push and pull in its

letters. And that perfect balance sort of is saying to us - well it's not

sort of, it *is* saying to us - "don't worry, any of the problems that

you're having, or the problems in the world, or problems getting

through the subway, or finding a bathroom... all those problem aren't

going to spill over, they'll be contained. And in fact, maybe they don't

exist.”
It becomes clear to the viewer immediately why Helvetica is used so often.

Its simplicity is so appreciated by graphic designers that some use it as their only

typeface. However, these opinions only make up half of the collection, and when

these opinions aren’t shared, they are completely denounced; designer Erik

Spiekermann’s very first line in the documentary gives a pretty clear idea

concerning his views on the font:

“Most people who use Helvetica, use it because it's ubiquitous. It's like

going to McDonald's instead of thinking about food. Because it's there,

it's on every street corner, so let's eat crap because it's on the corner.”

David Carson shares a similar opinion, mentioning that “…just because

something is legible doesn't mean it communicates and, more importantly, doesn't

mean it communicates the right thing.” The collective anti-Helvetica camp is just that

– it hates the font, and it hates everything it stands for: simplicity.

So what is it about Helvetica that is so simple? From the very beginning of

the film, the director highlights one reason through his selection of similar

interviews; as Helvetica designer Massimo Vignelli states, “… we think that

typography is black on white. Typography is really white, you know, it’s not even

black. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it.” People (who are not

in graphic design) don’t often take into account the element of spacing between
letters, or the “white” that surrounds them. Instead, we just focus on how it looks on

paper. Vignelli continues: “…in a sense, it’s like music. It’s not the notes, it’s the

space between the notes that makes the music.”

The most striking feature about all of these elements Helvetica is their

simplicity. There is nothing advanced or complicated about setting a camera down

and pressing record, filming a single shot over a period of time. There is nothing

complicated about being zoomed in on a particular object, only to then show the

same shot zoomed out. There is nothing multi-layered or complicated about the

music used to give the shots more feeling. And lastly, there is nothing over

complicated about the typeface itself. Instead, there is simplicity, and this simplicity

is the most powerful element of the entire documentary. The director has taken a

simple and, because of that, commonly used font and revealed its story. There are

no intense camera scenes or huge revelations or shocking secrets – there is simply

a font, its creator, and the surprisingly differing opinions surrounding it. All of the

storytelling in the film consists of opinions and fonts, which, in my opinion, is the

most striking factor. Never would I have imagined a documentary about a font to be

so fascinating, and so interesting. But Helvetica most definitely was.