Not really a review of 'Helvetica'

Last week, on bed rest, I finally got around to watching Helvetica, the 2007 documentary on the 'oh gosh it's everywhere!' font. And to be honest it was pretty ho-hum. The long stretches of montages just showing the font in the world became so frustrating by the mid-point that I actually pulled out my phone to check twitter.

The other big annoyance I had was how subtitles were clearly needed for the heavily accented German and Swiss type luminaries but not used. It felt like the film makers were worried about offending them. The history of Helvetica was told by those who were there when it was made but I just didn't understand a word of it. Oh well.

In the end, it was the non-helvetica related elements that intrigued me enough to keep me watching. And in this aspect I did learn a lot, mostly about myself. So I'm recapping those points here:

1. You come into design at a point in history without even realising.
Paula Scher said this and in a moment I realised I clearly came into design during the "David Carson is a GOD. A GOD I TELL YOU!" stage in history. My design lecturers wanted to have his babies and screamed about how modernism is as dead as the sparkle in Lindsay Lohan's eyes. I couldn't stand it.

I always reacted in bad gut way against David Carson's work (I'm sure he's a top bloke, this isn't personal) but I couldn't explain why until I saw this documentary. I had just assumed it was because I didn't like my lecturers but now I realise it's because I was forced into loving him without understanding the journey.

When Carson began designing he rebelled against the design norm of his time (modernism), whereas when I began designing Carson was the design norm. I was actually following his example by rebelling against his work. I just didn't know it. (Side note: By rebelling I mean I hated it and did whatever I wanted, it's not like I became some design genius who created a new period of history or anything.)

2. Designers can be wankers
Oh gosh this whole thing was just so self congratulatory and male centric - just like the design industry. My eyes almost entered a permanent state of rolling. If I had to name 5 of the interviewees from 'Least Wanker' to 'Most Wanker' the order would be Michael Beirut, Stefan Sagameister, Wim Crouwel, Erik Speakermann, David Carson. Truly, Michael Beirut looked least likely to be suffering RSI from patting himself on the back.

3. I love design
This is something I've really forgotten after years in the ad industry. In advertising the focus is always the concept (aka the creative), the design is always second. And I get why that's so and don't disagree with it. However, it was nice to spend 90 minutes just thinking about design and not idea. It really reignited something in me.

So at the end of this so called review would I recommend it? No, unless you have a keen interest in design and zero fear of your eyes detaching from their sockets.


  1. This doco was a great background distraction while cutting out fourteen dozen wedding menus and game cards. By which I mean it didn't require enough brainpower that I was distracted from the task at hand.

  2. @flashman yes! You nailed it. This should be the quote on the DVD case.