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  • Apr 19, 2014
  • Updated: 5:45pm

Helvetica

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

Helvetica

Starring: Michael C. Place, Paula Scher, Matthew Carter and David Carson

Director: Gary Hustwit

The film: If you're familiar with the phrase 'kerning' and if fonts are your fetish, chances are Helvetica will make you weak at the knees.

It's a razor-sharp documentary on perhaps the world's most-used font, the style of typography you're most likely to see on billboards on the streets of most western cities, or in magazine advertisements. But it's so much more.

Director Gary Hustwit looks at the history of typography and its influence on us. In a way, it's a reflection on man's search for order in a disordered universe. By looking back on the world before helvetica, we see chaos - a clash of styles that made magazine layouts look messy and had street signage pointing every which way.

But two Swiss guys - Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann - in 1957 developed a style that brought order to things. Thin straight lines, and a very clean look changed the way we looked at words - and in their own way turned the world of design upside down. You might not know it, but helvetica is all around you.

What Hustwit does is appropriately minimalist in its approach, too. We are shown a lot of talking heads and flashes of examples of what they're talking about to keep us up to speed.

But by weaving a structured narrative into things - following the story of the font's impact and the backlash that followed - he gives some drama to a topic most people would consider utterly boring. The arguments for and against are given and it's left to us to decide what we like and dislike.

The designers Hustwit talks to are mostly unknown to anyone outside their industry, but they're apparently giants in the design world. Once they speak, you begin to recognise part of a world that surrounds you that you may never have thought about before.

Hustwit makes the mundane seem fascinating - and that is the film's real triumph. He also achieves the almost impossible - he makes sitting behind a computer playing with words seem somehow interesting.

The extras: They might only be for the diehards - or polo-necked design freaks - but you get the full-length versions of all the interviews used in the feature. It's an extra hour but there are some wonderful moments - as when it's revealed that there are people out there who really do love letters, and they can tell you their favourite without a second's hesitation.

The verdict: Far more interesting than a film about typefaces has any right to be.

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