The Font Seen Round the World

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If you take the subway, fly American, shop at Target, have read those “clean up after your dog” signs, or use Word, you’re already familiar with Helvetica. But not until you see Fort Greene filmmaker Gary Hustwit’s fascinating documentary do you realize the incredible amount of thinking, biases and backlashes surrounding the font.

As part of Drinks on the Doc, we’re screening Helvetica this coming Tuesday, April 28 at The Bell House before Objectified, the second film in Hustwit’s design doc trilogy, opens at the IFC Center in May. David Carson, the rebellious art director who designed Ray Gun (and who openly hates Helvetica!), will be on hand for questions, and we’ll have $3 bottles of Fisherman’s Navigator Doppel Bock to make the typography talk flow.

We asked Hustwit, who’s out on the road screening his latest film, a few questions about Helvetica, Objectified, and what’s next for him.

Only after watching Helvetica do you realize how ubiquitous the font is. Who pointed that out to you?
Well, if you live in New York, and you’re into graphic design and type, it’s hard not to realize it! The subway and bus signs are in Helvetica, [as are] so many corporate logos. It’s just everywhere. But I think most people don’t really notice the difference between fonts in general, until it’s pointed out to them. And once you notice something, you can’t not notice it. So I guess I became a little obsessed with finding Helvetica while I was making the film, to the point where after we stopped filming, I couldn’t stop looking for it! If I looked at a sign, I’d try to identify the font even before I read what the sign said. Erik Spiekermann, one of the designers in the film, calls that “typomania.” It’s a little scary, but a lot people have told me they can’t look at the world the same way after watching the movie; they can’t stop noticing all the fonts now.

Everyone in the film has strong feelings about what Helvetica means — it’s human, it’s reassuring, it’s oppressive, it’s boring. What do you think of it?
I think of much of our interpretation of type depends on our own background and memories. When I was a kid, we always flew on American Airlines, and their logo is in Helvetica. So I think that on some subconscious level I associate Helvetica with travel, vacation, adventure… It’s weird, but I think it’s true. So my feelings about the emotional content of the typeface might be completely different from someone else’s.

It’s surprising that a film about a font can yield so many great interviews. Do you think that’s possible with any subject — or is it just that the world of design is filled with smart, quotable figures?
It’s possible with any subject that people are truly passionate about. I don’t knit, or have an organic farm, but I would be riveted by a documentary about knitting or organic farming if the people on screen were great at what they do and totally engaged with it. In the films I’ve made, that’s what I think comes across; these are people who get to do something they love for a living, and it really shows.

Did you prefer working with a wider subject (design of objects and philosophies of design) or a more narrow topic (Helvetica)? Does your filmmaking approach change between the two?
Helvetica was about a seemingly simple subject that opened up into this whole complex world of creativity and reach. I think Objectified takes almost the opposite approach; it’s about everything around us, but then it focuses on the similar thinking behind it all, the creative processes of the people who design all this stuff. It’s surprising that the design of a toothbrush or a car is basically the same, when you look at the thinking and creativity behind it.

You produced a lot of music documentaries before Helvetica, like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, about Wilco. How important to you are the soundtracks for your films?
It’s huge…with both films I’ve made I probably had the music in mind before I’d even started filming. I remember listening to my iPod when I was just starting the production of Helvetica, walking around Manhattan, looking for examples of the font that we could film. And that actually became the film! The music I was listening to at the time ended up being the film’s soundtrack, with the sounds of the city mixed in, while looking at Helvetica. So the sound and image of the film were directly inspired by walking around the city listening to music.

Helvetica focused on graphic design; Objectified on industrial design. What’s next?
I’ve actually just started working on a third design-related film, that will sort of complete this little trilogy, only I can’t tell you what it’s about yet! But I’ve found that making documentaries is an excellent way of learning more about a subject I’m interested in, or exploring questions that I have about this world. And I’ve got many more questions, so hopefully I’ll get to make a lot more films. I guess I’m drawn to subjects that we take for granted in our daily lives, but somehow have a huge impact on us. So in a way the films are about making people take a second look, and changing the way they think about these things, whether it’s fonts or all the manufactured objects we surround ourselves with.

Brooklyn Based’s Drinks on the Doc series continues with Helvetica, Tuesday, April 28, at the Bell House, 149 7th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Aves., Gowanus. $5. Doors at 7:30. Q&A to follow with David Carson (and possibly other special guests).

Sent by Chrysanthe. Photos from top: Steph Goralnick, Helvetica poster by David Carson, David Carson at TED Talks, and Gary Hustwit by Xavier Encinas.

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