Monday, September 17, 2007



I love documentaries which focus on obsessions or which focus on one thing to the point of obsession (think Grizzly Man or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), so I knew I was bound to love Helvetica. This enormously absorbing and amusing documentary traces the history and impact of the Helvetica font, interviewing both fans and caustic critics. It's surprisingly funny and features a great soundtrack, to boot.

I read an article a year or so ago about the psychological reasons behind why men wear khaki pants, and it occurred to me during the film that Helvetica is the khaki pants of fonts. It's a work horse, yes, but it's also eminently safe, it blends in doesn't take any chances. Which explains both why it's become so ubiquitous, but also why some designers despise it. There's a sense in which it's elegant in its simplicity, but it's also a default, when you don't want to ruffle any feathers - or, perhaps, when you aren't creative enough to use more elaborate fonts with confidence. A slew of designers make these points in the film, though, and in far more articulate a fashion than me. They also point out that designers can take using Helvetica as a challenge, taking the limitations it imposes and seeing how they can create something creative within them.

Great points on both sides of the argument. And a documentary well worth your attention if you're a writer, a designer, or a font aficionado.

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