We just barely snagged a seat in an extremely tightly-kerned crowd at the world premiere of Helvetica here at SXSW, where the entire audience sported buttons reading “I love/hate Helvetica.” Okay, okay, everybody has been making their little jokes about “the movie about a font.” But guess what–this is not really a movie about a typeface. Helvetica is just a character in this wonderfully-made film, which just might be the best history of graphic design we’ve ever seen.
Director Gary Hustwit‘s film will lead even the most design clueless through an intelligent global survey of design. But designers won’t be bored. It’s not a simplified primer; instead, it’s the soul of graphic design–straight from the source. Massimo Vignelli preaching that there are only really, three typefaces (we thought it was five; he must be getting pickier). Sagmeister saying clean type is boring. Paula Scher explaining illustrative type. Rick Poynor explaining Modernism. David Carson epitomizing grunge type. Experimental Jetset bringing it all back around.
The story of graphic design is meant for the big screen. With the exception of a few conferences and maybe the work of someone like Hillman Curtis, we just don’t get to see ourselves like this. And damn do we look good.
Especially Erik Spiekermann, and an adorable Michael Bierut, who are the real stars of this film. Bierut delivers the best monologue in the whole movie–an awesome treatise on corporate design that got the biggest laughs and a hearty round of applause.
True to subject, the film itself is simple and beautiful. There are some lovely animations of Swiss designs and cool shots of how type gets made. And there’s an exuberant quality about the whole thing–a lingering shot on a corner of a poster, the spare but expressive music, and the stunning, overwhelming ubiquitousness of this typeface that means nothing and everything, all at the same time. The film festival guy who introduced the film said this, and got a laugh from the audience, but by the end of the film it was apparent: Designer or not, you will never, ever see the world the same again.