show

Michael Bierut

Our Little Secret



Poster, Experimental Jetset, 2007

The moment the New York graphic design community has long awaited is almost upon us. Tonight, Gary Huswit premieres his sold-out-for-weeks documentary film Helvetica.

I was in the audience for a sneak preview at MoMA several weeks ago, and I'll give you my early review. The film is great. (And not just because I'm in it, nasal Cleveland accent and all.) Huswit has structured the film's interviews to create a perfect short course in postwar graphic design. Luke Geissbuhler's cinematography is beautiful, and the music makes everything seem positively hip. I left the preview feeling thrilled to be a graphic designer.

Like many, I have high hopes that this will be the moment that our field finally breaks through to the general public. As I excitedly said to a friend, "Hey, this might do for typography what Wordplay did for crossword puzzles."

My friend, a non-designer who has always found my enthusiasm for things like fonts a bit alarming, was a little less sure. "Maybe it'll do for typography," he said, "what Capturing the Friedmans did for pedophilia."

Hmm. I always have been a little sheepish about my obsession with type. And my friend isn't alone in sensing that this obsession has a vaguely prurient quality. More than one interviewee in the film gets a little hot and bothered about things like counterspace and x-heights. As Erik Spiekermann puts it: "Other people look at bottles of wine or whatever, or you know, girls' bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It's a little worrying, I must admit."

There was a time when we designers had this obsession all to ourselves. Before the introduction of the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing in the mid-eighties, the names of fonts were something that normal people encountered rarely. (Typically, this might happen if they stayed with their Alfred A. Knopf volumes all the way to the last page where they'd encounter the often comically arcane "Note on the Type.") For the overwhelming majority of the population, the names of typefaces were as obscure as the Latin names of plants, and just as useful.

Anyone could design a poster or a t-shirt back then. What they couldn't do is typeset it. This was the technical feat that separated the professionals from the amateurs. Believe me: changing handwritten text into set type was magic, and we designers were the only ones who knew how to pull it off. For my first two-and-a-half years of design school projects, I used dry transfer lettering for headlines, and dummy copy in a few predictable sizes that we'd xerox out of books. Who could afford typesetting? A simple job would cost $35 or $40 dollars back then, tough to come by on a student budget. Typeset words had true authority, because they had real money behind them. And in the working world, the money got even more real: I remember seeing typesetting bills for annual reports that were in the high five figures.

As a young designer in his first real job in 1980, I learned that this made typography a high-stakes game. It went like this. You'd get a manuscript from a client, say 20 pages of Courier (although no one called it Courier, or even thought of it that way). You'd have to calculate how many characters were in the manuscript the old fashioned way — no Microsoft Word, no word count tools — by counting characters per line, then total number of lines, then doing the math. Next you'd have to decide out what text typeface you wanted to use, what size and what measure. Finally, you'd refer to a copyfitting table to see how long the columns would run: more math. If it seemed like this figure would fit the layout, you'd mark up the manuscript and send it to a typesetter. It would be back, set in beautiful type the following morning, galley after crisp, clean galley of it. If it fit, good for you. If it ran long, guess what? You just lost $250, stupid.

As was true for children of the Great Depression, these tiresome hardships led to deeply-ingrained habits. It was a system that rewarded deliberate planning, not creative experimentation. You found yourself repeatedly specifying certain fonts just because you knew how they would set: after a few years I could make a pretty accurate guess about how long a typewritten manuscript would run in Garamond #3 (12 on 13, flush left, ragged right on a 30 pica column measure) just by looking at it. So I set a lot of Garamond #3. And your relationship with your typesetter was one of the most important in your life. For years, Earl from Concept Type was the first person I'd call in the morning and the last one I'd call before going home at night. He'd save my ass, too, calling me at home at 2am to confirm that I actually wanted that last subhead to be bold italic instead of just bold like the others. I knew his voice like I knew my wife's. I saw him only one time, at a Christmas party, and had that same horrible moment of disbelief and disorientation that I had when I saw a picture of my favorite radio disk jockey: But Earl doesn't look like that! It was him, though.

Earl is gone now, just like every typesetter I ever knew. Instead, we live in a world where any person in any cubicle in the world can pick between Arial and Trebuchet and Chalkboard whenever they want, risk free, copyfitting tables be damned, and where a film about a typeface actually stands a chance of enjoying some small measure of popular success. As my college-age daughter says, "All my friends are really into fonts." There isn't much other currency available, after all, in the realm of MySpace and Facebook. Is it still magic when everyone knows how the trick works?

I hope Helvetica is a smash. It deserves to be. But part of me still misses the days when it was just our little secret.

Posted in: Design Practice, Film + Video, Typography

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Comments [59]
Ach, I can't wait to see the movie. I may be one of the last generation of people trained to be a typesetter. I learned in high school, in journalism class, as we had some early optical typesetting gear. I perfected the trade through college, working for a type and design house that had more advanced optical gear. I was an early Mac user and set type through into 1991, in the last year or so working at Yale. The high point of my career was probably setting the university art museum catalog for Greer and Sue Allen.

I knew I was part of a dying trade, but as a budding graphic designer, I had the best of both worlds: control of typography in an era when new designers barely knew how to work with it; and an ersatz career that transitioned from optical to digital type, and then into different things. (I'm now a freelance technology journalist of all things.)

For me, looking at type is like feeling a sculpture. I used to be able to recognize probably 500 faces at a glance. That number is considerably reduced. I'll see a face I haven't seen in a while, and the name and designer will be on the tip of my tongue. Having not set that type for so long means that I don't have the feel of it in my mind's eye. It's like running into someone you haven't seen in 15 years, but who you once spent a lot of time with -- you don't want the name to slip your memory, but it does.
Glenn Fleishman
04.06.07
02:02

Well, the poster sure is boring.
David Smith
04.06.07
06:54

David, I think you miss the point entirely. The poster accurately portrays what made Helvetica such a revolutionary creation of the postwar era. I'm a genXer who grew up thinking typesetting (or fonts for my web-coding mind) was easy-breezey and nothing to get excited about...only to finally discover the wonderful craft and artistry behind them. I'll be interested to see the documentary. Thanks Michael for sharing your story around this work.
Chris Bailey
04.06.07
08:43

Just wanted to second Michael's comments. We sold out two screenings in Dallas at the AFI International FIlm Festival and exposed design and type to over 500 people. The film actually came in second for the people's choice award. Great fun movie and Mr. Bierut is brilliant, particularly his diatribe on Coke. What a great tool to be used to expose the public. Enjoy the film.
Bo Parker
04.06.07
09:32

I saw the movie in Austin during South by Southwest, where it was playing as part of the film festival. I was there performing with my band, and I forced my friends and band members to see it. They admitted that, while they would not have thought to go on their own, Helvetica did give them a better idea of what I did for a living. The only thing they really seemed to retain, though, was the omnipresence of Helvetica in our outside world (a point the film drives home well). In the walk from the theater to dinner, they delighted in pointing out the typeface on signs and buildings. For a few minutes, they got to feel as graphic designers do when walking down a city street. Of course, their interest in type didn't last very long; Hours afterward, I was still reeling.

Michael -- in the screening I attended, your scenes in the movie definitely got the most laughs. How does it feel to be the comic relief?
Teddy Blanks
04.06.07
09:35

I saw Helvetica at SXSW, and absolutely agree with Michael here. Though I missed out on the more laborious process of typesetting you learned by, I find myself delving into some older methods more and more, possibly in an effort to breathe in some of the history for an art form I truly love and admire, but also to force appreciation in to my thick skull for craftsmanship I can only hope to comprehend.

Unfortunately, I really don't know that this could inspire the save respect for type that Wordplay did for crosswords, because of the very point you bring up: type is taken for granted on computers now. Crosswords are still difficult as shit, but type can be set in less than a minute from ridiculous stores of fonts. I fear people will just gloss over it as they do any of the dozens of typefaces they skim by when browsing fonts in Word. Man, I hope I'm wrong, because the film, Gary, and typography deserve more. And you were really funny in your interviews for the film, Michael.
Jason Santa Maria
04.06.07
09:38

Does it stand up to Dana Arnett's Ben Day short?

Never could figure out why that little gem film wasn't made public. Can't wait to see this thing. If Bravo can wax ecstatic on the glamour of interior design and the beatnik bravado in tattooing perhaps theres a place in the sun for us lowly... and now ladies and gentlemen, the host of Tip-Top Type Design— Michael Beirut... and today's challenge...?
felix sockwell
04.06.07
10:39

Everyone knows how to set type now? Have you seen the Web? The horribly-kerned default fonts in Word that nearly everyone seems to use for business documents? The assault by the MS Comic Sans and Chalkboard militia against basic human decency?

Typography is more of a train wreck than ever. The tools are cheaper and more readily available, but damn few know how to use them well.
Nicolai
04.06.07
11:16

(That said, I'm really excited to see the movie!)
Nicolai
04.06.07
11:20

I adored this film, largely, I expect, because I adore type. This is not to discount its many other finely-tuned shades of more accessible charisma, as you pointed out. Being so close to the subject, though, it's hard for me to gauge how the people who aren't so close to the subject will respond to it. After all, I didn't think anyone who didn't have a graphic design education would really enjoy Chip Kidd's novel, The Cheese Monkeys, and boy was I wrong about that one. So I'll look forward to seeing where this film takes us. Whatever the outcome, you, Gary, and the everyone else involved in this film has definitely done us proud (to say nothing of your achievements in the design world).

Also, thanks for your ruminations on the laborious days of typesetting yore. My only real experience with copyfitting tables was a brief week in college some twelve years ago, but it was enough to impress upon me the real level of craft involved in quality typography, which I carry with me to this day.
Rob Weychert
04.06.07
11:46

It's true that now anyone (nearly anyone--my parents haven't figured out how to change typefaces yet, I'm sure), but that is also a far cry from being able to use those typefaces well, especially in constructing readable copy. The number of widows and orphans I see every day makes my eyes bleed. :)
Dan Saffer
04.06.07
12:04

Great review!

As a young designer, fresh out of school, it is nice to read about the history of the trade, a part of me would totally love to take some classes on type setting. In some ways I also have these weird and many times quite suspect feelings towards type as you ahve describe you yourself has. My wife ordered new checks, and she was all excited because she got to select the font, and then I looked at it and said oh yeah, thats "such and such" font, then she looks at me and says, "You are weird?"

And I said , "yeah, I like it that way..."
Shane Guymon
04.06.07
12:50

Thanks to everyone for the comments. One thing I want to make clear, however, is that the process of setting type back in the day, at least when I experienced it, was less about skill and craftsmanship and more about complicated arithmatic and clerical work. It was sort of like building a fire with sticks: character building and useful to know, but a time-consuming pain in the ass.

The craftspeople were really the typesetters, a huge industry then, nonexistent today. Guys you would never lay eyes on would handle your work with such tender loving care, make you look great, and never get a bit of credit.
Michael Bierut
04.06.07
01:05

Back in the day, as a junior designer, it was my job to order copy from the typesetters. When a new job came in I had to transcribe the client's copy onto A4 sheets and mark it up for setting.

Problem was that my own handwriting was pretty hard to read, so I got into the habit of 'writing' as printed uppercase characters (something which I still do to this day). The old guy at the typesetters was used to this, and knew to 'correct' the case as required.

Then, one day, his junior was tasked with setting some copy for me, who didn't know of this foible of mine. About 12' of set copy came back on a 5" roll, with the whole lot set as uppercase. I got in *so* much trouble for that.

Funny thing is, I kind of miss those rolls of type and sticking them down on artboard by hand; computers simply aren't as tactile.
Andy Warwick
04.06.07
01:16

I think I miss the idea of setting photostat type more than the actual practice. When I think back to cutting it out with a razor blade and trying to get it to stay straight on the wax melting in the 100 degree heat, all day, every day, I'm glad those days are behind us. I do sort of miss the smell, though.
Nicolai
04.06.07
02:05

My grandfather was a typesetter in Granite City, IL for thirty years. He died a few months before I was born, but my father often talks about hearing him talk about how type was always in danger of becoming bastardized and cheapened by people who didn't know better. That was in the 1960s. There's always going to be room--and appreciation--for good typography.
Brad Gutting
04.06.07
02:19

With design having found its way into mainstream culture over the past decade, it seems now would be a good a time as any for the masses to be receptive towards Helvetica. In "What's My Motivation" (Emigre 64), Shawn Wolfe writes: "Design is more than just cool now. Design is popular. Design is mainstream. Even your mom knows what a font is. And she has her favorite. And that's where it's at." Then again, maybe the public getting excited about typography will be like the public getting excited about Miami Ink. Tattoos and tattoo artists are inherently cool, but it's not for me.
Josh Gomby
04.06.07
03:29

the weak become heroes. anonymity.

type is a funny thing. ive been trying to get my head round it for a while now. and i can completely see why people become obsessed with it but ill be jiggered if i could explain why or how.

think the closest i can get is. and its not my own work. aim for perfection but it is the degree of falling short of perfection that gives the qualities sought. it will never be reached but not harm in trying. and its there that i think the power of type lies. people try and say same thing with words (in type) but same thing is happening in type. does that make sense? hope so.

ted
04.06.07
04:15

I saw the film at SXSW as well, where it was part of the Interactive festival as well as the Film festival. I absolutely loved it. As a student of documentary film, I really appreciated the structure of the film; I thought Gary Hustwit did an excellent job of walking viewers through the basics of typography and design so that we could understand why Helvetica was such a big deal. I got into typography right when it was at the transition point; when I started, we set type on Apple Lisa-based Compugraphics machines to RC paper and pasted it down with wax, kind of halfway between the old model and desktop publishing. We moved to laser printers and Postscript printing fully laid-out pages around 1990 at work. The Macintosh had fonts, but high quality output really wasn't available to everyone until several years after the LaserWriter came out because the price was still too high. I think it was around 1992 when QMS introduced the PS-410, which was the first laser printer to cost less than $2000 if I recall correctly. Of course, being hooked on type by that point, I bought one....
Ralph Brandi
04.06.07
04:23

Going to see it in a few hours. Can't wait!
Patrick Cahalan
04.06.07
04:26

Everyone knows how to set type now?

This is in reference to what?

Have you seen the Web? The horribly-kerned default fonts in Word that nearly everyone seems to use for business documents?

Neither of those is typesetting, and anyone claiming otherwise is delusional. While there's more that can be done with web text than most bother with, and I can't comment on Word as I don't use it, both these examples are more oftan than not type selection at best.
Su
04.06.07
05:49

more than a movie about type.

this scene is very telling:
Herr Professor Speikermann walking in the office and saying

guten tag!

ahh~ but the answers:

Hello
Morgan
HI

and the pictograph on the screen.

Yet, the familiar BERLIN above the train station which hasn't changed. At one time it was fun to be a Berliner Kind, so wie die Berliner sind. What's the word? Brisk.

Nice glimpse of a fascinating city.

Nancy
04.06.07
06:02

Due to overexposure working with Helvetica in the 1980s, and constant environmental bombardment in the 21st century, I have developed a toxic-allergic reaction to the typeface, so would be physically unable to sit through more than five minutes of the movie.
Nick Shinn
04.06.07
07:00

As Michael says, type can be sexy. There are but two small steps from X heights to XXX heights. Check out Nat Connacher's series of paintings, Typographic Nudes
Tony Spaeth
04.06.07
07:01

The link, friends, is http://www.loftartists.com/natc.html
Tony
04.06.07
07:09

Grindhouse appears to be a better bet.
David Smith
04.06.07
07:16

what gets me about the design world is how uncool it is.

design is knowing, design as knowing, knowing design, yadda yadda yadda.

i call for a free for all.
ted
04.06.07
07:54

I think I miss the idea of setting photostat type more than the actual practice...



yes and no, i guess. it was often magical to spec the type on a vdt and see, minutes (hours? days sometimes) later, the real type. then the hand-kerning with blade and wax. or seeing the result was not what you were hoping for, and having to go through the whole process again and pray for the best. what i think was incredible (i say this now) was the fact that we really had to THINK before we acted... we had to understand, on a more intellectual level, what we were doing. and it slowed us down in a wonderful way to live the type. but good god, it was tedious. that's for sure. but i wouldn't trade the training or the education that came from it for anything, even though now i love being able to see the type the same instant i imagine it.
chuck
04.06.07
11:22

Just saw the movie. And just like Michael, I felt pretty great about being a graphic designer afterward. It struck all the right notes. Nice visuals, good music, interesting and often funny interviews. And if you count the giant American Apparel banner in one of the outdoor montages, it's even got some sex appeal (for guys at least... gals will have to find their sex appeal in the likes of Erik, Massimo, Wim and the rest).

I too would love to see this film enjoy some popular success. But will it? The optimist/design-geek in me says yes. But the realist says probably not. Helvetica may be ubiquitous but as the subject of a movie it's simply too esoteric.

I found myself several times during the movie trying to watch it just as a movie - trying to put myself in the shoes of the average person. Would they get it? Would all the talk about counters and x-heights make sense? Would it matter if it didn't? What would Ebert and Roeper have to say about it?

Ultimately it was impossible to do that, and I gave in and watched it as a graphic designer. And as such, I was thrilled. The average-person-litmus-test will just have to wait until I buy it on DVD and make everyone I know watch it.
Josh B
04.07.07
12:32

I'm all excited now, but I -know- this flick ain't coming to India. When's the dvd coming out?
Andy Malhan
04.07.07
02:36

Forget dvd's, when will this be released on BLURAY with each full 2-3 hour long interview added to it in glorious HD? (Is anyone listening out there?? BLURAY!!!)

All of the interviews were extremely fulfilling, definitely put a smile on my face. Certainly inclusive of Mr. Bieruts appearance.

For those who haven't had the chance to see it yet I would suggest pre-ordering that ticket if possible and running out to the nearest screening asap! (Wherever you may live.)

Click me for screenings
Garrett Lubertine
04.07.07
04:33

Ah yes, dry transfer lettering... One of my first jobs was at an advertising and promotional products manufacturer where they had a whole room full of Letraset type on rub-down sheets with each typeface in a separate tiny drawer. My job was photographing and re-scaling artwork using a PMT camera, another lost technique, and an expensive one since photographic paper was being used.
John C
04.07.07
10:47

Forget DVD and Bluray, when can i purchase it from iTunes? I want to see this movie now, but living in East Dubuque, Illinois, doesn't exactly mean that there are loads of cultural experiences at arm's reach. I'll pay to download it! Where can I get it?!
John Mindiola III
04.07.07
10:58

I'm dying to see this movie, but I live even further from culture than East Dubuque, Illinois. However I did, coincidentally, see Capturing the Friedmans just last night! I'm having difficulty imagining the potential relationship. Is there much confusion in the film regarding truth in Helvetica? Does Arial commit vile acts and blame it on Helvetica [yes]; or is Helvetica accused of unspeakable usage, of which it is actually innocent [yes]? Does one leave the theatre with a profound sense of self doubt in each and every single time one has used Helvetica? God knows, we don't need more of that.

The craftspeople were really the typesetters, a huge industry then, nonexistent today. Guys you would never lay eyes on would handle your work with such tender loving care, make you look great, and never get a bit of credit.

I used to be a typesetter, and yes, we did. We loved that type like it was our very own. And personally, I would like to see the profession of typesetter/typographer revived, because I've seen the proliferation of bad typography grow to such an extent that I begin to wonder if it even matters any more.
marian bantjes
04.07.07
02:09

Ooo, nostalgia! One of the other mixed blessings of the good old days was the exclusivity of metal type. As recently as 1981 I worked as a subeditor on a magazine in London for which the designer had specified a certain metal body type the name of which I've forgotten, but which looked a bit like a condensed, smarter American Typewriter.
Trouble was, the nearest typsetting house that actually had this face was in Milan. So there was a minimum two-day delay between speccing copy and getting galleys back from Italy by courier. Then we had to correct them and send them back across Europe again... and sometimes (but surprisingly rarely) there were errors caused by typesetters working in something other than their native language.
Was it Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces who said: "Keep tellng me about the good old days, Floyd, because they make me sick!"
Steve Ballantyne
04.08.07
12:04

One of my first mentors stressed repeatedly to look at the type on everything. Junk mail, shampoo bottles, movie credits. For about three years I hated him for that advice because I couldn't see anything but type. 20 years later I still see the type on everything before I see the words - but I love that advice now.
Stephen Macklin
04.08.07
08:29

So does anyone know whether the film will be available on DVD anytime soon, or if it's possible to watch online/via download anywhere? I, too, live far from anywhere that might be having a screening...
John Clark
04.08.07
11:32

During the Q+A after the screening Gary Hustwit said it would be on dvd after the screening tour ends which is near the end of the summer.

Patrick Cahalan
04.08.07
11:53

It is unusual to me that Josh says it is difficult to divorce himslef from watching it as a graphic designer. While, that would be my interest in watching the film, maybe it's the adult acquired ADD that some have suggested in me that makes my attention skip.

Stephen,

I had a teacher similar to that. Though, for the visually gifted, I still suggest if you walk through enough natural growth forests you know the kerning between the trees. And such is applicable, etc. Anyway, I don't hate him for his ruthlessness in teaching approach, but there is this despising of the lack of courage in even identifying that I may have had an ounce of validity about certain provocations.
nancy
04.08.07
01:15

Recently, my dad sent me an article about the 50th anniversary of Helevetica saying that I am the only one who would know what he is talking about and who would care. He also told me that he found it interesting as well. I told him to see the film when it shows in Columbus. Hopefully, he will understand better what I do.

But what is exciting for me in this post is the information on the old way of typesetting. Last week, my boss and I were in an office building that contained Typogram. He told me of his relationship with them and bits and pieces of the old way of doing things and how they were/are one of the best. The whole time, I just looked blankly at him, having no context except the computer and one letterpress class. I never realized that there was a math factor.
alison
04.08.07
02:27

Hi Michael, great entry. Your bit in the film was just as entertaining as when I saw you speak last month at Bumble and Bumble in NYC. Having seen the film last friday at the New School, I thought it was brilliant. But maybe this is just me and I didn't get a chance to ask Mr. Hustwit this question.. but do you think there should of been some public reactions to how helvetica is used in everyday visual signage, posters, ads, etc.. rather than just the points of view of professionals in the creative field of graphic design, marketing, or advertising?
Chris Espiritu
04.08.07
03:30

it's possible to claim that designers today have more responsibility now than designers of the past, as well as more freedom, thanks to the computer. typesetters used to do the type; now that industry is gone and designers are responsible for it, along with photo retouching and sometimes animation, site hosting, and anything else associated with 'graphics'. im curious whether in the past designers were seen as production people as much as they are now, since the tools of production are in our hands.

As a side note, the book '8vo: On the outside', a history/monograph of the British design studio Octavo documents the transition to computer based typography very well, as that studio's practice straddled the pre-and post- mac era. There are great photographs of marked up artwork they would send to printers, one poster could contain hundreds of instructions to printers and typesetters.
manuel
04.08.07
04:14

Please, do not waste money releasing this for Blu-Ray. The market is already small, and the market for Blu-Ray is even tinier.

There's no reason that Garrett's desired extra features could not be distributed on a muli-disc DVD set, which would probably be cheaper to produce than a single disc Blu-Ray release.

Ordinary DVD is accessible to a much wider audience. There's no point in fragmenting a market that is already small. These new HD formats should not be encouraged, because they are encumbered by ridiculous copy-protection schemes and insanely priced hardware.
Bembo Reductio
04.08.07
09:11

it's possible to claim that designers today have more responsibility now than designers of the past, as well as more freedom, thanks to the computer. typesetters used to do the type; now that industry is gone and designers are responsible for it, along with photo retouching and sometimes animation, site hosting, and anything else associated with 'graphics'. im curious whether in the past designers were seen as production people as much as they are now, since the tools of production are in our hands.

I think that it's a double-edged sword, Manuel. Yes, designers today have more freedom, but they are doing the jobs formerly done by two people, as you point out. This means more time spent on a project, more obsessing over the type, etc. Of course, things get done faster -- no waiting around for the type to come back from the typesetter -- and cheaper. (And, yes, when I got my first jobs doing paste-up in the mid-80s, it was the equivalent of the work done today by a production artist. The tools were just different.) I wouldn't go back to the way things were done before either, but by making the means of production so easily available, standards have dropped, as Marian points out.

I would like to see the profession of typesetter/typographer revived, because I've seen the proliferation of bad typography grow to such an extent that I begin to wonder if it even matters any more.

I feel just as discouraged sometimes, Marian! Even though it's hard for me to see type the way "the average person" sees it, I'm sure that there will always be "layfolk" who notice or appreciate good typography. Maybe that's a different kind of responsibility that designers have nowadays -- learning as much as we can about typography, spreading the word when we get the chance.
Ricardo Cordoba
04.08.07
10:17

wonderful article. thanks.
jens
04.09.07
05:00

I didn't get a chance to ask Mr. Hustwit this question.. but do you think there should of been some public reactions to how helvetica is used in everyday visual signage, posters, ads, etc...

Chris, glad you liked the film, and I guess I can answer your question now. Yes, I think it would be interesting to get "man on the street" opinions of Helvetica and type in general, but that would have been a different film. At one point we talked about going to a psychiatrist and having them analyze Helvetica and a grunge font, for instance. Or going to a grade school and talking to kids about their favorite fonts. But I really wanted to concentrate on the designers... I think they deserve so much more recognition for what they do. For me, they were the focus of the film... it's more about the designers than it is about Helvetica, really. And I wanted to stay focused, I wanted to get an insight into what the designers think and do, by using Helvetica (the typeface) as a framework for that.

And I guess, ultimately, every filmmaker makes the film they want to see, which is why Helvetica is what it is. It's simply the film that I wanted to see two years ago, but that didn't exist then, so I made it. I easily could have spent two more years and a lot more money traveling around and filming more people, other viewpoints, other cities, etc. But I wanted to keep things as simple as I could with the film, to keep it as close to my original idea as possible. And I really like films that get viewers thinking about their own feelings on a particular person or subject, but that are more open-ended in a sense. Ones that let you "complete" the film with your own feelings about how the subject affects your life. So hopefully Helvetica has succeeded in that sense.

Cheers,

-Gary
gary hustwit
04.09.07
09:54

I have high hopes that this will be the moment that our field finally breaks through to the general public.

I'm sure it'll help, bu the same was said about the creation of Target's Clear RX, which probably has far more public reach than the film will. All I can say is I hope so, too.
Kosal Sen
04.09.07
12:44

We made a cool interview with Experimental Jetset at Swiss Legacy. Take a look www.swisslegacy.com
Xavier Encinas
04.12.07
03:29

I have seen a few of the movie clips on the site. I looks and sounds great!

Are there any interviews with non-designers?

What does the general public think of helvetica the typeface?

For once, it would be nice to stop preaching to the choir!

I guess I have to wait for the dvd to answer some of my own ?s about this film!

Curious:

Why is the "Meet the cast:" on the Experimental Jetset poster missing the numbers and punctuation marks?

Did the rest of the cast ended up on the cutting room floor?

Hmmm...
Samuel
04.12.07
10:07

"Neither of those is typesetting, and anyone claiming otherwise is delusional. While there's more that can be done with web text than most bother with, and I can't comment on Word as I don't use it, both these examples are more oftan than not type selection at best."

To those knocking web type:

I'm no expert in typography, web design or letterpress. I've had some experience with each discipline and personally, I've been able to draw more similarities between html/css and letterpress than letterpress and InDesign with 50,000 fonts.

Here are some similarities I've discovered:

The risk of disaster
One bad rule in the forme may cause your type to fall to the ground, one bad markup may render your html scattered.

Greater limitation
Limited typefaces, limited colors, no halftones (I'm sure there are more)

Aesthetic Outcome / Technical Ability Ratio
It seems that in both HTML/CSS coding and letterpress printing there is a greater connection between the quality of the product and technical know-how behind the production.

Does anyone see what I see? I hope to explore this some more

just a thought...


Does anyone have info on more NYC screenings? I missed the premiere ; {
powell
04.18.07
03:15

I just realized that the word "cast" in the poster turns it into a bit of a pun.
powell
04.18.07
04:12

Excellent parallels powell. I would like to add that I spend hours typesetting my CSS and only a few minutes selecting the display face and text face. I use the em quad unit for sizing, letterspacing, word spacing, and leading (line-height) to establish a comfortable line length and vertical rhythm as well as a clean visual type hierarchy for every web site I design. This is the most important (and neglected) aspect of web design and to say otherwise is naive and/or complacent. Check out these links if you don't believe me:
Web Design is 95% Typography
Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web
Digital Web typography articles
The Trouble With EM 'n EN (and Other Shady Characters)
Five Simple Steps to Better Typography
k e i t h p a r e n t
04.18.07
04:39

Great posting, great commentsthread.

Can I confess that even today the whole "being nuts about typefaces" thing eludes me? I mean, I see people for whom typefaces are like toys or sex organs, and god knows that I register what's going on visually around me.

But -- a confession of inadequcy here, not a case I want to make -- I just can't connect. I don't see what the big deal is.

It's readable or it's not. It's got serifs or it doesn't. It's quaint or it's modern. Even after all these years of writing at computers and working in the media and observing the way culture is developing, that's about how far I've been able to extend my interest.

My eyes seem to want to take me through the typeface and into the words and their meanings, and as far as taste in typefaces go, "easy to read and reasonably attractive" just about nails it for me. I look at people who go nuts for typefaces and it's like looking at people who are crazy about, I dunno, model trains or something. There the passion is, but I'm incapable of getting what it's about.

I will be seeing the movie though.
Michael Blowhard
04.20.07
12:46

I saw it last night at Hotdocs in Toronto and thought it was loads of fun. I hope it gets a good distribution outside of the festival circuit, it deserves it. :)

Greg J. Smith
04.22.07
12:42

I'm teaching at Notre Dame this semester, and I've been thinking as I read this that I'll have to wait until I get back to New York to see the movie. In fact, it was shown here two days ago. Aaaarrrrggghhh! It only had one showing, and whoever publicized it on campus did not do a good job.

So I write these comments without seeing the film yet and not being a typographer.

I instinctively dislike lower case helvetica. Seeing it repeatedly described in one of the clips on the film's website as "neutral," I think "nonsense." This is one of the problems with Modernist design: in its purest form, as at the Bauhaus, modernist design education was like Mao's reeducation, designed to sweep away what came before it. But we (designers educated in the system) falsely present it as "neutral." Helvetica is no more neutral than an International Style building. It can be beautiful, but it has a strong character.

I spent a year living in Germany, where I found much of the lower-case helvetica in the public realm diminished the beauty of the city.

It's been interesting to me that in the rise of the web, Lucida seems to have been more popular than Helvetica. I look forward to seeing the movie and perhaps getting a better understanding why I and others seem to find it more beautiful.

I realize my comments are naive, but that's not from a lack of interest in typography. I've never seen a good general, genuinely neutral introduction to typography. I look forward to the movie and becoming more educated.
john massengale
04.28.07
09:42

Just saw "Helvetica" at a sold-out showing in Portland, Oregon. Could hardly believe that 400 or so people wanted to see this movie, on a Sunday night nonetheless. But the crowd was wonderfully engaged by the film and I can see it being a great hit for those both "in the know" and novices to the world of type.
Stephen
05.03.07
02:16

Another sighting, this time on the opposite coast, at the Philly screening hosted by the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University.

Michael, you brought down the house -- after going to the church of high Modernism with Vignelli and listening to the proper Anglo tones of Matthew Carter, the hushed audience simply burst into tidal waves of laughter when you talked in oh-so-graphic terms about scraping away the crust of cluttered 50's design. When you delivered the punchline with the Coke ad, people were utterly beside themselves in hysterics.

Considering that we boo everyone from Santa to guests of the Philadelphia Orchestra in this town, to say you were a hit would be an understatement.

Folks, drop whatever you're doing and haul your asterisks out to see this film.
Jen
05.17.07
08:57

I've just finished watching it on DVD through Netflix. A movie about typography! Way cool (and way nerdy). I'm in heaven...except for one thing:

Why is it that graphic designers so easily put up with the musical equivalent of Comic Sans in their environment? The music soundtrack made me cringe--it was as trite and badly designed as the most offensive of typefaces.

I also cringed every time a professional type designer used the term "font" when they really meant "typeface." I'm sure nobody in the movie would like to be referred to as a Font Designer.

Other than those two complaints, I believe that this is a movie that anyone who has ever put a cursor between two letters should see (a broad audience indeed).
Cynthia
11.26.07
01:33

My copy of Helvetica on DVD arrived in my Canberra (Australia) mailbox recently. I loved the movie and it's nice to hear people talking about typography in such a passionate and nerdy way. I'm glad to learn I'm not the only one to bore my friends as I complain about the kerning on a restaurant menu or somesuch.

In total contrast to Cynthia I thought the soundtrack was great!
Liam
12.12.07
10:19



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