Helvetica: A Documentary, A History, An Anthropology

I recently saw Helvetica, a documentary directed by Gary Hustwit about the typeface of the same name — it is available streaming and on DVD from Netflix, for those of you who have a subscription.  As someone who studies ubiquitous socio-technological infrastructures (and Helvetica is certainly one), I know how hard it is to seriously pay attention to something  that which we see every day.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but as Susan Leigh Star reminds us, the more widespread an infrastructure is, the more we use it and depend on it, the more invisible it becomes — that is, until it breaks or generates controversy, in which case it is far too easy.  But to actually say something about what well-oiled, hidden-in-plain-sight infrastructures are, how they came to have such a place in our society, and why they won out over their competitors is a notoriously difficult task.  But I came to realize that the film is less of a history of fonts, and more of an anthropology of design.

While I was watching the film, I initially had to stop myself from being disappointed with the film for not being a proper academic book on the rise of the world’s most popular font.  The film, which is extraordinarily well-made, seems to present itself as two things.   First — and it does this so amazingly that you’ll see the world differently — it gives us a glimpse into the sheer pervasiveness of Helvetica, which is done by breaking up the segments of the documentary with clips of the font used in incredibly diverse situations.  Second, the meat of the film is a story of the font in modern, post-modern, and contemporary Western culture, which goes from the historical moment in modernist design in which it first emerged in the ’50s, its creation and instant explosion in the ’60s and early ’70s, the post-modern reactions against it in the late ’70s and ’80s, its rebirth as a standard computer font in the ’90s, and then to the present day.

It does this entirely through interviews with typographers and graphic designers, which is main the problem I had with it: the stories about the rise, fall, and rebirth of Helvetica are quite mystical, even bordering on the mythic.  There are serious holes in the factual record, especially with regards to the incredible, unexplainable rise of the font’s popularity.  The story told in Helvetica is largely a timeline of conquests, taking on an air of inevitability that pervades most narratives of technology.  In one of my favorite segments, a young designer ruminates about what it must have been like to be a young corporate imaging consultant at an ambitious design firm in the 1960′s.  He imagines himself as a client meeting in which he places the classic 1950′s corporate letterhead of “The United Industrial Widget Corporation” — awash in all its royal imagery, intricate logos, and scripted lettering — next to a single sheet of paper that says, in Helvetica, “WidgeCo.”  That sentiment perfectly captures the belief expressed by many of the interviewees: that Helvetica was the most perfect font produced at the most opportune time, the ultimate final expression of modernist aesthetics, unleashed on an unsuspecting world that was itching to shrug off the lingering Victorian era but didn’t even know it.  Once introduced, Helvetica spread like wildfire, because when placed next to everything else, there was simply no comparison.

It is a story like this that sounds warning alarms in my head, because these kinds of explanations are given for everything — especially technology — and actually explain nothing.  Almost every interviewee says Helvetica was simply the perfect font at the perfect time, and nothing can be done to ‘improve’ it further; so to progress in typography, designers had to first undermine the cultural-aesthetic space Helvetica came to dominate and define.  Even its harshest critics admire how terribly modern, how ruthlessly efficient, and how perfectly emblematic  of corporatism it is.  Because of this, the film fails to be a history of Helvetica, which is why I initially thought I had to just appreciate the film for taking the effort and entertaining me.   As I kept thinking about the film’s missed potential and how patently mystical the rise of Helvetica was portrayed, I pulled out a couple classic accounts of myths as genres to see how many qualities of myth this prosaic narrative masquerading as explanatory history actually fell back on.    Never-ending battle between eternal opposing forces of order (modernism) and chaos (post-modernism)?  Check.  Primordial time before our world was settled?  Check.   Told by elders and leaders?  Obviously, the film is nothing but this.  Major characters played by non-humans (be they Gods, spirits, geographies, technologies, or so on), who progress through humans playing archetypal, genericized minor characters?  Double check, the humans involved in the creation of the font appear as sterile Swiss stereotypes, then are forgotten as the major actors become the massive graphic design firms and then major corporations who first adopt the font.  And same with major players in the anti-Helvetica movements, who present themselves in cultural stereotypes and then minimize their own roles as they tell of their own conquests.

But then I realized that critiquing what I thought was a historical argument revealed Helvetica as something much more impressive: an anthropological window into the design community, and how they see the world’s most popular typeface.  In looking through articles about myths, I pulled out one of Malinkowski’s articles on “Myth in Primitive Psychology” and was surprised how well it applies to the story that Helvetica tells.  In this article, he does not put forth a set of standard qualities of myths, but instead talks about the role of myth in both ‘primitive’ and contemporary societies.  What he most famously does is critique the etiological (or explanatory) conception of myths as exaggerated, false, incomplete, or symbolic history, which is how I had been thinking of Helvetica.  Instead of thinking of them as perversions of true accounts, Malinkowski notes that while myths do seem to tell a kind of chronological account and explain why things are the way they are, they don’t actually discuss anything that needs explanation.  Instead, they serve a much different function in society: socialization, giving form to our current world instead of revealing the contingencies of the past.  So the questions that the #1 and #2 myths of all time — the creation of the land and sea or of the two sexes — answer are less about the particularities of how we came to be and more about how we ought to be.  They establish boundaries between social groups, the sexes, nature/culture, and give justification for ritual practices of all kinds.

With this in mind, I began to see Helvetica as less of a documentary of the font itself and more of a story of the contemporary graphic design community, which happens to hold Helvetica as a supremely sacred object.  As designers say over and over again, there is nothing that can be changed about Helvetica: its supporters say there is nothing that can be improved, and even those that violently critique it do so by decrying it as the ultimate logical conclusion of a half-century of modernist aesthetic.  As one interviewee says, to go against it, people had to literally go back to the drawing board and think of an entirely new way of placing type on a page, or even the very idea of standard, uniform fonts.  As revealed through the film Helvetica, designers live in a world situated between order and chaos, a world in which both Helvetica and a child’s scribblings are both a priori rational choices when starting a project.  The film tells us the origin myth that keeps the boundary between these two eternal forces steady.

One thought on “Helvetica: A Documentary, A History, An Anthropology

  1. I largely agree with your analysis – I too felt it was lacking a deeper analysis when I first saw it. I enjoyed watching it but it told me nothing new about this part of my toolkit (that has an outsized halo). However, as a designer in a society that undervalues design*, I came to embrace this film for another reason: it justified my existence. Its mythmaking makes the narrative accessible to more people and has made everyone in whose company I’ve watched the film literally nod, often unconsciously, in a way that essentially justified my adult life.

    *With the exception of the stock market, oddly enough. But that’s another story.

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