Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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550 words on

While this must have been the first time in a long while that I have been to Berlin without going to some gig, the weekend had another great attraction. The film Helvetica was screened in the course of the Typo conference. Tickets for that were given to participants of the conference at priority but luckily people made an effort to schedule another screening at lunchtime on Sunday at the arts uni.

And of course I had to go there as I haven’t really seen any bad comment about the film yet. A number of things could be mentioned here. For example that sitting in a film with all those people who probably were arts student types was quite different from my usual life among the mathematicians. Different people, different styles, different movements, different clothes and so on. What can I say – the stereotypes mostly hold.

And then there is of course the topic of Helvetica and my opinions about it. Generally I am not a big fan of Helvetica. For one I just love serif fonts a lot. And furthermore I associate Helvetica with boredom and forms. But that’s just my preference. The typeface is so solid and well-made that it’s hard to argue about it – particularly in these Arial-ridden days. Helvetica manages to be so sturdy and geometrical but still has a number of nice little details like the lower bar of the capital R which I can appreciate.

And I was curious to see how other people – real graphics people – would approach this and what the people interviewed for the film have to say about it. Somehow all current documentaries seem to be a series of interviews with some eye candy between it. And Helvetica is no exception to that. With the eye-candy obviously being shots of Helvetica being used for signage and logos on the streets of cities.

That was great for the atmosphere but I found it a bit misleading as by its sheer ubiquity Helvetica is as much a rural typeface as it is an urban one [how ubiquitous is it really? are there any numbers on that? per country, writing system etc?]. The only reference the film makes to that ubiquity is a shot of the Space Shuttle which suggests that wherever you go, Helvetica will most like have been there before you. Scary.

The interviews were with numerous people from the design world, only very few of which I had heard of before. While largely positive, their comments on Helvetica ranged from highly enthusiastic appreciation of the typeface to blaming it for a number of wars. In the end these things come down to opinions and I think most of the statements they made were right. It was fun to see that professionals, seasoned professionals even, can still be that emotional about a basic tool of their trade.

After the film, director Gary Hustwit added some details about how the film came to be – including the note that we all should make our own films (which reminded me of Art Brut telling everybody at a gig to go and form their own band now) if we felt an important film was missing. He also willingly answered questions before encouraging everbody to go out and enjoy the sun.

May 22, 2007, 0:16

Tagged as arial, berlin, film, gary hustwit, helvetica, typeface, typography.

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