Last night I went to see Helvetica, the feature-length documentary about typography and the most famous typeface of them all, Helvetica. I had been looking forward to the film for quite some time, and was really excited to hear it was coming to Edmonton. The event was put on by the Alberta chapter of The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada.
Every review I had read about the film had been glowing, so my expectations were pretty high. The film wasn’t disappointing, but I have to admit, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting either.
I think I was anticipating something like Freakonomics but for typography, a fun and interesting look at the impact of Helvetica on our daily lives. Instead, the film focused more on the history of the typeface, and really only discussed the impact of Helvetica on the design industry. Designer Paula Scher made the bold claim that Helvetica caused the Vietnam and Iraq wars, but that was a close as we got to the impact outside the design world. There were one or two segments with company logos, but the discussion of corporate adoption of Helvetica was fairly limited.
All of the people interviewed in the film were in some way involved in the design industry. I think it would have been much more interesting (and entertaining) to have balanced the interviews with some “outsiders” who could comment without really having a position. The designers seemed to either love or hate Helvetica.
That said, as a documentary about a typeface, Helvetica was quite good. A little long for those of us who are not enamored with design, but still quite good. I particularly liked graphic designer Michael Bierut, who always had the funniest comments and anecdotes. Without his segments, the movie would have been seriously lacking in the chuckle department.
Bottom line: if you’re interested in design, you’ll probably enjoy Helvetica. Otherwise, you might want to think twice.