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Episode Guide: Helvetica

Episode Guide: Helvetica

Posted: Monday, 5th November 2007

Helvetica is a shorter version of the feature-length film by Gary Hustwit about the most popular typeface in the world, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Why Helvetica? Because it is everywhere. Millions of people use it and read it everyday, on public transport, newspapers, shop fronts and, of course, their computers.

The film tells the story of how a typeface drawn by a little-known Swiss designer in 1957 became one of the most popular ways for us to communicate. It has been described as the Kate Moss of fonts - ultrathin, misunderstood and plastered all over the tabloids. The Museum of Modern Art in New York even staged an exhibition devoted to it.

Interviews with some of the big names in graphic design like Neville Brody, Rick Poyner and Massimo Vignelli (who used it in the American Airlines logo which has remained unchanged since 1966) help tell the history of this elegant, modern design. In the beginning it was prized for its quality of clarity and neutrality. It cut through the clutter of 50s advertising to convey the corporate image. Then it became almost the default font for governments, global corporations, bureaucracy and capitalism. One counter-culture designer recalls that “if you used it, it meant you were in favour of the Vietnam war.”

Though Helvetica has gone in and out of fashion it has never gone away. The film asks whether this is a symptom of globalisation or simply a reflection that it is the ultimate typeface. Or, as one interviewee puts it, "it seems to come from nowhere ... it seems like air, like gravity.” Love it or loathe it, it is a design masterpiece.

Helvetica, BBC ONE, Tuesday, 6th November, 2007.

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