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Helvetica – the therapy session | DesignNotes by Michael Surtees

Helvetica – the therapy session


My lowbrow impression of the documentary film Helvetica was that everything was great – yes it really was. Instead of me giving a play by play sequence of the film I’d rather talk about some of the things I learned. Up until now I’ve never been willing to choose helvetica as a typeface for a design. I have used helvetica, but only because it was part of a brand’s set of assets. My snobby favourite has always been Univers because of the numbering system it has for all the weights and the fact that I laid type on a press with it. The stable of sans serifs that I typically look towards include the Sans, Gill Sans, Fruitiger, Franklin Gothic, Trade Gothic, Locator, Myriad etc. Ok, there’s also one typeface no one can escape from if they design for the web – arial. But it’s the bastard font child that no one really speaks about. Each of the other sans serifs that I mentioned had enough character change to make it feel right for me during the project I would use it for. But until last night I didn’t realize that I was probably relying on the positive shapes of the characters as opposed to the negative space in between the characters that make up typography. I now realize that in essences I was using those faces as a crutch.


Before seeing the film Helvetica I wondered why? A film, for a font? Does it mean that there should or could be a film about any imaginable typeface out there? After watching the film I don’t think it will be easy to duplicate Helvetica. On a number of occasions people that were talking passionately in the film suggested helvetica was like air, it’s just there. It really seemed like a therapy session, both for those talking on screen and the audience itself. I’ve now been living in NY for almost nine months and helvetica is everywhere. I just ignore it. In less urban areas (or at least where I used to live in Canada), I’ll take the risk to generalize and suggest that the attitude is similar to my old impression that helvetica wasn’t the first choice for a design. It’s not as abundant in less urban areas. But with so many diverse examples of the same typeface used in almost every conceivable way, it was an overwhelming example of the power of the negative space. When I took out my dog this morning I was looking everywhere to see how the space was being used with helvetica. But to answer my original question of could there be another film about a typeface on the same level as Helvetica, I don’t think so. It’s a special film because it came out at the right time, there’s an abundance of examples helvetica in the world and graphic designers are looking for something to believe in that isn’t necessarily personality driven as much as an expression of a passion that they can relate to.


I’m guessing over the next year that there will be over a 100 screenings of Helvetica. Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Toronto so far are the only Canadian cities mentioned on the Helvetica website for screenings. I just hope more Canadian cities take the effort to bring it out to show. But if that doesn’t happen soon enough, one of the questions asked and answered was if there was going to be a dvd available for purchase. And the answer was yes which is great for those that may not have the film come to their city and for those that were lucky enough to see it in a theatre who need more. The film was roughly structured with conversations by really passionate graphic designers and visual examples from different urban cities. For those that loved helvetica and those that didn’t in the documentary, what surprised me was it was based more on philosophical terms then on aesthetics. On the pro side there was the idea bringing order to chaos. One example on the negative side was that it was a reflection of the corporate interests in past (and present) wars. But each person that spoke in the documentary was brief. It was to the point but for obvious reasons the conversations were edited down to a manageable time. It was hinted that on the dvd that the full conversations would be accessible.


After the film ended there was a panel discussion w/ Massimo Vignelli, Tobias Frere-Jones, Jonathan Hoefler, Jakob Trollbäck and Gary Hustwit. The discussion turned quite fascinating when an audience member named “Ed” talked about how he’s made love to helvetica and told the tribunal on stage to let her rest. As he finished his statement the audience applauded. The only Ed that I know about in typography is Ed Benguiat, perhaps it was him though I can’t confirm it either way. As rudimentary as the last question from a different audience member was, I think the answer surprised most people that are familiar with Robert Bringhurst. The audience member asked is there really a difference between typeface and font? And the response from the panel – today, not that much.

I’ve also placed a set of images from the evening on flickr.

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  • Adrian Lai

    Thanks for the review Michael. I was planning on checking this out as well, but wasn’t able to make it.

  • meredith biberstein

    Particularly interested to read your blog on this Michael. It screened in Wellington (NEW ZEALAND) on a Friday lunchtime + then again in the early evening as part of our annual Film Festival. Both sessions were packed out (which i think means every designer in Wellington saw it!) + judging by the atmosphere everyone had a great time. My personal favourite aspect – seeing madly passionate designers discussing a typeface in this way – probably one of the most refreshing design related events since design school. Shame we didn’t get the panel.

  • michael

    Thanks for sharing your experience Meredith, it’s fascinating how a film could really bring out a lot of designers in such a positive way.