Helvetica – what a pants documentary

I like fonts. I like typography, I like lettering, and I like calligraphy. I’m not an expert, not even close, but it’s one of those intriguing areas that seems to fascinate computer scientists and designers alike. So when I saw that there was a documentary all about Helvetica I rushed it onto our DVD rental list and waited excitedly for it to arrive. I told Kate and the kids that it may sound dull but it was sure to be really exciting and informative. Pah!

I couldn’t get the kids to watch it (they gave me that Daaaaaaaad eye rolling thing) but I’m glad they didn’t. It was awful. There were some good bits: seeing the various designers talk was fun (like Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Paula Scher, and Matthew Carter to name but a few). But there was no sense of tension or even narrative. I suppose we’ve become spoilt with such good documentary making over recent years.

What was even more frustrating for me was that the film showed enough for the viewer to realise that there was a good story lurking in there somewhere. Near the beginning one of the designers mentioned that history sees Helvetica as the pinnacle of sans-serif typeface design but that the real story is more complex. So tell us the real story! What were Helvetica’s predecessors? How did they differ? What was its competition? How did it achieve worldwide domination where others failed? What was built afterwards and why? Which similar fonts have since improved it? What were those improvements?

I was also annoyed that there wasn’t more time given over to explaining the anatomy of a font. For example kerning – I’ve always assumed that kerning is part of font design. Perhaps it isn’t. Anyway several interviewees mentioned that the spacing around the letters was an important part of Helvetica’s success, and yet several of the examples of Helvetica in use that peppered the documentary had little or no spacing. Were they Helvetica? How come?

Some font concepts would be introduced with no visual explanation at all. This is the screen not the radio! One designer mentioned grunge typefaces and it wasn’t for another twenty minutes we were shown an example.

Oh dear.


4 Responses to “Helvetica – what a pants documentary”

  1. leon42 Says:

    Hi Tim, know what you mean about the film, however if you want kerning information I would strongly recommend James Felicis book The Complete Manual of Typography a guide to setting type. Its not the usual type book in that its not at all about what typeface to use, it concentrates solely on how to layout a type after you have made this selection, its quite hardcore and has 12 pages of its large pages devoted to Kerning and tracking

    Cheers from up north


  2. dumbledad Says:

    Thanks Leon – the Felicis book sounds amazing. I’ve been enjoying “Type and Typography” by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam which is packed with tidbits of information and great graphics.

  3. rbanks Says:

    Scarily enough, I didn’t actually think it was that bad. I enjoyed the political side of it – a single font representing Modernism and Capitalism. Besides which, I love the little intro when the guy typesets the font, and prints out the title.

  4. dumbledad Says:

    You’re not alone Richard. I was a bit nervous about writing this post since most designers I’ve spoken to (who have an interest in font) love it. It won lots of awards to. Your political point is interesting though. I missed the modernism exhibition and I haven’t thought through that whole political dimension to modernism.

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