After much heckling from my graphic design friends, I finally took the time this weekend to watch Helvetica, a 2007 documentary primarily about the font of the same name. I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t realize how much typeface impacts their everyday life, and even more so for people who make typeface decisions.
If you’re a designer, you need to see it. If you’re a writer, you should see it. If you’re a company bigwig, I implore you to see it. If you like Comic Sans or Papyrus, you’re beyond help – so don’t bother. (It’s on Netflix Instant, for those of you that have it; and likely available for rent at any local library.)
Helvetica is a sleek and simple sans serif typeface developed by the Swiss in the late 50s during the Modernism movement. It’s the most famous of typefaces and, without a doubt, the most often used. (Some of you may know its sibling “Arial.”) Here’s a quick rundown of .0001% of the companies that use it and, in some cases, haven’t changed their branding in 50 years because of it: 3M, American Airlines, Jeep, BMW, Jackass, The Office, JC Penney, American Apparel, Target, NASA, Apple, Motorola, and Panasonic.
While a documentary about a typeface may not sound exactly riveting, I can guarantee it will change the way you look at, and think about, fonts. It will make you look at your logos and letterheads differently. It will make you design ads, posters, websites, etc. differently. In short, it will make you think. As any good piece of media should.
What’s all the fuss about a stupid font, you may ask? Well Helvetica is significant in the histories of visual communication and American culture. It came about after WWII, when people wanted a simple, quiet, hermetically sealed lifestyle like they saw on Leave it to Beaver. During that time, typefaces in ads and branding were often hand-drawn, quirky, and inconsistent. When Helvetica came, it not only gave a visual sense of sleekness, comfort, and uniformity, but it also pushed ads towards effective simplicity. For instance, look at this Coke ad from yesteryear, and this other one from this year. The problem is, some people look at Helvetica today as an overused model of uniformity, globalization, and capitalism.
So set aside 70 minutes for the film, and several hours for reflection on your own use of fonts. Your company’s branding will probably be better for it.