Periscope Depth

I've got something to tell you far outside the black and white

Sylvia called me up on Sunday and asked if I wanted to watch Helvetica, the 2007 documentary about fonts. “Do I ever!”, I exclaimed.

Helvetica is a very dry documentary about a very fascinating subject: the role that typeset has in introducing us to products or concepts. It covers this larger theme by recounting the story of the design of the Haas Neue Grotesk font, which we today call “Helvetica”: the most common typeset in the world of Roman characters in the 20th century. Every street sign in New York, most forms of U.S. government paperwork, and practically every corporation uses it.


The film raises the question of why Helvetica has become so ubiquitous. Does everyone use it because elements of its design seem so appealing: the firmness of the lines, the encapsulation and separation of white space? Or does Helvetica appeal to us because everyone uses it? This debate intrigued me, having started a conversation on Friday over whether mind/body unification means outside forces create our desires, or our desires look for outside forces to fulfill them. Which came first – the crossbar or the em?

The documentary as a film: good. The conversation, as I said, gets a little dry at times, with the individual words fading into the background like the strokes of a character fade into the word-picture it creates. Then you get a character like Erik Spiekermann, who compares the most common font in the world to McDonald’s, and you perk back up. Worth the 90 minutes of your time.

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