Probably only a small handful of very serious type fanatics were salivating over the idea of a documentary about the ubiquitous font Helvetica, but to his credit, first-time director Gary Hustwit finds those people, winds them up, and lets them go, and their outsized personalities make Helvetica far livelier than the film's boxy, sleek-but-generic typeface necessarily deserves. In an opening montage, typical of the film's colorful approach, a series of designers effuses about Helvetica's vastness: "It sort of just seems to come from nowhere—it seems like air, it seems like gravity." "It's hard to evaluate. It's like being asked what you think about off-white paint. It's just there. It's hard to get your head around something that's that big."
Hustwit doesn't have much problem getting his head around Helvetica, to the degree that he tries: He presents a short history of the font's 1957 creation and subsequent boom period, when an era of crowded design and flowing script-fonts gave way to a need for "rational typefaces" to present a growing wave of information in a sharp, legible, emotionally neutral way. But mostly, he just lets a bevy of experts pontificate on what makes a good font, on formal typography training vs. unrestricted creativity, and on ugliness as a disease designers are trying to cure. Some of his interviewees consider Helvetica a blessed counter to the 1950s' cluttered visual styles; others consider it part of the problem, because it's an overused, sterile, easy choice. Either way, they express themselves in entertainingly broad, emotional terms. (One German designer, in response to the question of why Helvetica is still popular after 50 years: "I don't know. Why is bad taste ubiquitous?")
Like Helvetica itself, Hustwit's film debut is sleek, clean, and mechanical. He sets his talking-head interviews to modernistic, minimalist music, and spaces them out with rapturous montages focusing on the many, many public signs and familiar corporate logos in Helvetica. Even the interviews are bright and slick, since they take place in the designers' professional spaces, which tend to be spacious, shiny, and calculated for impact. His doc sprawls a little, and could use more focus and more concrete information—in particular, he often neglects to identify his multinational interviewees by profession or country of origin, or explain why he chose them, apart from the way they can be trusted to sigh over Helvetica as "the perfume of the city." Then again, given how they manage to turn a narrow fanatic's subject into an expansive, widely relevant discourse, maybe he doesn't need any other reason.
Key features: None.