How does one relate thoughts and words into a visual form? How can one visualize what is innately verbal? This is the job of a typographer: creating a system and design of symbols that represents visually what is otherwise mental and verbal.
Fonts are not just a collection of letters that can be typed, or printed on a blank sheet. Fonts are really a connection between thoughts and words, and words and paper, and paper and ink. This connection runs both ways, as type on a page creates a connection to words, which then the reader interprets into ideas.
What separates type from other arts that convey ideas visually, is the restricted nature of its symbols. Each font is essentially a variation on a theme of 26 letter characters (in English) and various punctuation marks. What do change are the style, the spacing, the height, the weight, and the shape of each letter.
The film, Helvetica, traces the origins, impacts and dispersion of the title font, and makes a statement about the often ignored and underestimated power and thought behind fonts in general.
Helvetica, was a type born for the modern age. It was a big step from the serifed fonts full of emotion and specialization from the late 19th and early 20th century. Helvetica’s main purpose was to be simple and neutral. Neutrality was the design concept that permeated mid-20th art and society. The goal was to take out emotion, take out superfluous imagery, and make the text or image speak for itself.
Perhaps the most important design concept in designing Helvetica was the relationship of the text to the background. The font’s creator (though somewhat disputed in the film), Max Miedinger, sought to make a font that did not sit or float on the background; he did not want the impression that the font was distinct from the background, he wanted the font and background to be anchored in each other.
Miedinger found success in Helvetica. The font seems to interact and interlock with the background. The positive space in the font is as important as the negative space around it. With a careful study and changes in color, those spaces could in fact be changed and switched with little change of meaning. It is as if the letters are cemented into the page (or screen) with no possibility of movement.
The neutrality and almost universality of Helvetica has allowed it to shine in pop and corporate culture. The film shows in seemingly endless montages the uses of Helvetica in everyday life. Huge corporations, like Target, 3M, Boeing and others prominently use Helvetica in their stores. New York City uses Helvetica in their signage, and the IRS uses Helvetica on tax forms. It has gotten to the point, the film argues, that Helvetica has surpassed just a font, but has become a definition and reflection of modern culture.
This film serves as a delightful overture to a discussion on the importance of the visual representation of words. The link between oral and visual is most directly and simply found in text and fonts. Though used daily, the majorities of text users do not stop and think about the power of the shapes of the letters. The film allows the average person to stop and think about how fonts are used, and the power they have.