Q&A: Gary Hustwit

Next year 'Helvitica' celebrates its 50th birthday and, as a tribute, filmmaker Gary Hustwit has created a movie that celebrates the font's integral role in graphic design in the last half century. Joe Russ finds out more.

Computer Arts: What's the idea behind Helvetica?

Gary Hustwit: The film takes a look at the past 50 years of graphic design and the proliferation of Helvetica. It's as much about how type affects our daily lives as it is about one specific typeface. The 50th anniversary of Helvetica was just a structure in which to talk about typography, and hopefully to make the general public more aware of type and how it affects them.

CA: This seems like a very esoteric subject for a film. Isn't it difficult to make a film about a font?

GH: By looking at the film as a meditation about graphic design and type, and the radical changes in technology within design over the years, it suddenly becomes about fitting all that into 80 minutes. It's not like 'In 1957 this happened to Helvetica and then this happened'. Helvetica is simply a thread that runs right through the work of all these people.

CA: Why Helvetica?

GH: You can't deny it's used everywhere - on Japanese subways and across the world. The film tries to open people's eyes to what the font has accomplished over the past 50 years, which has been a total domination of our visual communication systems.

CA: Is typography under-appreciated?

GH: I can't think of an art form we use more and understand less than typography. I want people to leave the cinema and look round them and think about the amount of type they see and the choices behind it. We're exposed to type hundreds of times a day and I think a little eye-opening to that fact is a good thing.

CA: What do you think is the secret to Helvetica's 50-year enduring appeal?

GH: The goal was to create something that could communicate easily and have clarity for easy reading. The endurance is as much about the public's familiarity with it as a visual device than anything inherent in the typeface itself.

CA: Who have you spoken to during the making of this film?

GH: I wanted to get the opinions of people who make type and introduce them to the viewer - people like Tobias Frere-Jones or Jonathan Hoefler, who do amazing work. I wanted to show their strategies on the use of type. I also spoke to Matthew Carter, who started out carving type in steel in actual sizes directly on the punches.

CA: Has Helvetica changed much throughout the years?

GH: The current version, Helvetica Neue, is different to the original. If you look at the font of 1957, it was rough and there were more idiosyncrasies that have been wiped out by the digital age. Helvetica will be around as long as we read the printed word.

INFO Helvetica is currently in postproduction, and will screen at film festivals worldwide in early 2007. For more information, visit www.helveticafilm.com.