Written and directed by Gary Hustwit

WHEN Through 6/21

WHERE Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

PRICE $9, $7 students

info 312-846-2800

When my grandfather, Arthur Jones, died in 1956, he’d spent more than 20 years working as a Linotype operator for the Chicago Journal of Commerce and the Chicago edition of the Wall Street Journal. The Linotype was like a seven-foot-wide typewriter whose keys summoned tiny letter molds and space markers from individual magazines; after a line o’ type was completed, hot metal was pumped into the space, creating a slug that could be fitted into a page and printed. The Journal of Commerce was at Grand and State, only a block from the Reader’s offices near State and Illinois, but I might as well be living in a different galaxy from my grandfather. Now editors do much of their own typesetting in programs like InCopy, and word processing programs have familiarized everyone with common type-faces like Bookman, Courier, Garamond, and Helvetica.

That popularization of typography is what makes the British documentary Helvetica so fascinating, and not just to publishing nerds. Filmmaker Gary Hustwit takes as his starting point the 50th anniversary of the title typeface, which was created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger and has since become ubiquitous. (If you doubt me, look around your nearest CTA station.) Hustwit’s occasional montages of Helvetica lettering in city signage, advertising, architecture, and publishing illustrate the awesome subliminal power of typography to shape the public consciousness. His interviews with prominent graphic designers in Europe and the United States reveal the ongoing tension between modernists like Miedinger and the generation that came after them. It turns out that the story of Helvetica encapsulates the postwar struggle between individuality and the common good, as a typeface created in the spirit of democracy gradually became a symbol of blind obedience.

The movie could never have opened out like this if it weren’t so firmly rooted in the aesthetics of type design–Hustwit approaches the creation of Helvetica as if it were the painting of The Last Supper. British design writer Rick Poynor explains that Swiss designers of the 50s were motivated by the chaos of World War II to “make things more open, make them run more smoothly, be more democratic. There was this real sense of social responsibility.” Miedinger set out to create a typeface that would be perfectly clear, neutral, and orderly. Modifying a 19th-century sans serif design, he decided to slice off the curved terminals of the letters along invisible horizontal lines, which has a strangely pacifying effect. And as Mike Parker, former director of typography for Mergenthaler Linotype, points out to Hustwit, the Swiss paid great attention to the space surrounding and contained by each letter, so that the black and white shapes lock into each other and give a sense of solidity. (The teardrop shape inside Helvetica’s lowercase a is a particularly elegant example.)

Helvetica spread like wildfire in the 60s, partly because it was so solid and functional but also because it was philosophically blank–it could be many things to many people. Whenever Hustwit breaks for one of his street montages, its versatility becomes obvious. It’s been embraced by the federal government (IRS forms, the space shuttle lettering on the side), retail chains (Panasonic, CVS Pharmacy, Crate & Barrel), and even the Beatles, who used it on the cover of the White Album, the last word in neutrality. As designer Jonathan Hoefler observes, American Airlines uses Helvetica to look sober while American Apparel uses it to look sassy. And according to media writer Leslie Savan, governments and corporations love the typeface because it makes them seem human. In a sense this blankness was exactly what Miedinger wanted; the whole idea was for the typeface to get out of the way and let meaning reside in the words themselves.

Because Helvetica was designed for mass acceptance, a backlash was guaranteed. By the time it arrives in the film, Hustwit has pulled us so far into the world of design that the struggle seems as titanic as the cold war. Overused in advertising, Helvetica eventually lost its original utopian character and became a symbol of mindless conformity, a sort of graphic anesthetic. Noting the “perfect balance of push and pull in its letters,” Savan articulates the message of Helvetica as “Don’t worry. Any of the problems you’re having or the problems in the world or problems getting through the subway or finding a bathroom. . . . All those problems aren’t going to spill over, they’ll be contained, and in fact maybe they don’t even exist.” Designer Paula Scher, who came of age in the 70s, considers Helvetica the typeface of the Vietnam war (prompted by Hustwit, she fingers it as the typeface of the Iraq war too). Another designer, Michael Beirut, recalls that when he began his career, the overriding sentiment of his peers in choosing type was “ABH–Anything But Helvetica.”

Much of the rebellion against modernist typefaces was rooted in a preference for the individualism of handwriting. Scher was inspired by the album art of the psychedelic era to begin hand lettering her work, and for a 1999 poster advertising a speech he was giving, designer Stefan Sagmeister had his hand lettering carved into his body with an X-Acto knife, the ultimate union of writing and writer. As German typographer Erik Spiekermann explains to Hustwit, handwriting has a sense of rhythm and contrast that makes it readable even though the letters may not be perfectly legible. Spiekermann has tried to incorporate those qualities in his own typefaces. To him the characters of many Swiss typefaces, locked into their rigid grid, aren’t letters–they’re “an army.”

Covering half a century, Helvetica encompasses not only the idealized order of Helvetica but the idealized disorder of the backlash against it, epitomized by the “grunge” typefaces of the 90s and in particular those used by the visually experimental music magazine Ray Gun. David Carson, who founded Ray Gun and served as art director throughout its eight-year run, recalls that some of his “innovations” were simply accidents, the result of not getting page proofs before the issue was published. But he had a design philosophy, and it was the antithesis of Miedinger’s: if Helvetica was supposed to serve the writing, the typography in Ray Gun sometimes purposely obscured it. Carson reveals in the movie that his notorious use of the symbol typeface Zapf Dingbats for a 1994 profile of musician Bryan Ferry was motivated primarily by his disgust at how lame the article was. He stresses that type can communicate something without necessarily being readable–and what Ray Gun most often conveyed was the designer’s ego.

The potential for chaos is even greater now that anyone can open up Microsoft Word and choose from 140 different typefaces, and Hustwit chooses to end Helvetica on an ambiguous note. The computer revolution may have democratized graphic design, letting anyone decorate his own desktop or MySpace page, but a certain amount of conformity is necessary for society to function. In that respect a utilitarian typeface like Helvetica serves the greater good. Like the CTA, it may not be much fun, but it gets you where you’re going.

For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.