Sunday, September 18, 2016

Helvetica: Personal Analysis through Visual Literacy Lens

Helvetica (2007) is a documentary by Gary Hustwit that explores how visuals are used around the world in the form of typography (including words in graphic design). The documentary uses the typeface Helvetica (see it as typed in Helvetica font) to discuss how fonts are created, used, and distributed in order to address the broader ideas of stylistic movements, communication, aesthetics, and the creative process. See a glimpse into the movie in the clip provided below. 


Director Gary Hustwit is an acclaimed filmmaker and photographer. (Read about him at his website here.) As an artist himself, he has creativity, an eye for design, and a general knowledge about art. I believe that Hustwit's artistic background shone through in his documentary. Hustwit artfully pieced together clips of professionals (such as historians, typographers, and graphic designers) with shots of their work, the locations that events occurred at, and even various fonts used in the real world (like advertisements, brand names, and informational signs). The director was able to focus our attention by alternating between these clips, as well as zooming in and out on details that visually represented the ideas each professional was referencing. 

Helvetica movie poster, used with permission from Jen Hoskins on flickr

Hustwit's professional artistic background played a role in not only the aesthetics of the film, but also the content that was addressed. Because of his experience in art, Hustwit was informed about the multifaceted issues that surround typography, and Helvetica specifically. Hustwit was able to find and interview renowned professionals with varying viewpoints due to his expertise, then draw out the important points that each person said and collect them into a refined motion picture. Hustwit had the professional knowledge regarding things like stylistic movements (such as modernism), branding, and communication through art that helped him create his vision for the film and the ideas he wanted to portray.

I believe that Hustwit's goal was to inform the viewer that there is more to fonts than just different styles of the same word on a page. Hustwit's film began by exploring the development of Helvetica that ultimately lead to its widespread use. He showed the incredible amount of work and revision that goes into creating a typeface, from the thickness and styles of the lines and curves used to the amount of space between characters and the way they look when put together. As one of the professionals lamented, being a typographer is more than just putting lines and curves together on a screen; it is truly an art. The typeface is created and revised dozens of times before it is finished, and it truly is a masterpiece by the end of this process. A couple of professionals in the film discussed what advertisements looked like before the dawn of Helvetica compared to the "modern" advertisements using Helvetica.

1950s advertisement; used with permission from Classic Film on flickr

Recent ad using Helvetica; used with permission from Random Retail on flickr

Hustwit's film continued to explore what fonts actually convey. Fonts can elicit feelings from the viewer. Choosing a typeface that matches the words, the meaning the words intent to convey, the photos used, the colors on the page, etc. is a much more complex job than one might think. I created a very simple example using the word "Snowflake" in five different fonts; these are all the same size, color, etc., just typed in different typefaces. Do you see how one word portrayed in different ways can produce completely different reactions from the viewer?

That second typeface makes me picture "Snowflake" as a show on Broadway! 

Hustwit also explored the widespread use of the font Helvetica, specifically, in our daily lives. He showed many different professionals' opinions on the use of Helvetica. Some said that Helvetica is a no-nonsense font: neutral, efficient, smooth, uniform, clean, final, legible, simple. To these professionals, Helvetica states exactly what it means. However, others in the film stated that they would never use Helvetica; it's boring, default, restrictive, ubiquitous, tight, particular, and dull. To them, Helvetica is overused and not worth the hype. I think it was well summarized by a professional who said, "There is a very fine line between simple and clean and powerful, and simple and clean and boring."

A popular example of a brand that uses Helvetica is Target; image used with permission from Svgalbertian on Wikimedia Commons

The only parts that threw me off guard while watching this documentary were the few references to different groups of people in the film. I remember that one of the typographers called Helvetica the "typeface of socialism." As this person did not like Helvetica, I think those who support socialist ideals (or those who do not, but like Helvetica) may have been offended by that comment. I think that the typographer's distaste could have been stated in a different way. Later, a graphic designer said that she was "morally opposed to Helvetica" and that it was the font people used if they sponsored the Vietnam War. Again, I am not sure if Vietnam War supporters would like to be associated with a specific font, or if Helvetica users would want to be known as Vietnam War fans, so I believe this opinion could have been phrased differently. While I don't think anyone would take these comments too seriously, I also think that people need to be careful of using words that actually convey the messages they are trying to state.

Overall, Helvetica truly opened my eyes about typefaces in general. My previous knowledge about typeface consisted of typing something in a document, highlighting it, and playing around with the available fonts, sizes, and colors until I found a combination that I liked. After watching this film, I now understand the hard work that goes into creating each of the fonts listed in my menu. I understand that each character in a font has to be individually created and compared to the other characters in order to see if they fit well together and with the figure ground. I never realized how influential typeface is on the feelings one experiences when reading something, nor how the elements on a page all have to work together to portray a message to the viewer. I should be more intentional about the fonts I choose to use! I also gained insight into the love professionals in these fields have for their work; I can't say I have ever appreciated the work/hobby (because to many of them, it is enjoyable work) of typographers like I do now. It's not just about having the technology to be able to create fonts; professionals have an "eye," a vision, and a level of expertise that makes them great at what they do. 

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